I am sending you lots of love in such a difficult and uncertain time. I’ve been thinking a lot about the painter, Mark Rothko, who said that abstract expressionism really came as a result of artists needing to say something that had never been said before. Basically, when the world changes, art changes.
So in all this uncertainly, there is something you can do: make art. The world needs artists more than ever in times of crisis. We are the visionaries. I’ve always said that I have no idea how the non-artists in the world handle their emotions! If I couldn’t journal, write, sing…I don’t know what I would do. We are lucky. We have our art.
So to that effect, Kathy Fish and I are going to do a morale-boosting, free 30-day FlashNano-like event starting tomorrow, Monday, March 16, for everyone sitting home in front of their computers and ready to write. We’ll be posting daily prompts (many recycled from FlashNanos of years past or from our retreat “prompt envelope”) on our website (no need to sign up for anything, we are just going to keep it simple), so we hope that this strange time can also be productive and inspiring.
We can’t control the crisis but we CAN control what we do. So let’s make some art. Please be safe and stay healthy and look after each other.
Michael Loveday’s debut novella-in-flash, Three Men on the Edge, is a story in three movements, a triptych of liminal spaces that forces the reader to consider the interior landscapes of others and how rarely we intersect with or even understand the tortured lives of our nearest neighbors, friends, strangers.
Nancy Stohlman: In the spirit of flash fiction, describe this book in six words:
Michael Loveday: “For sale. Crazy muse. Never porn.” (that’s Hemingway, right?)
NS: Ahem–of course (wink)! Now your bio says that you are “inspired by his experiences of an in-between place.” Explain. Do you think we are all living in in-between places in some form or another?
ML: The specific inspiration for ‘Three Men on the Edge’ was the weird hinterland between northwest London and the Hertfordshire countryside where I lived for ten years – an urban-rural “edgeland” that became the setting for the book. These kinds of places (neither fully city nor countryside) are quite a common phenomenon in 21st century capitalism, certainly in the West (and of course have been so for a while).
But it’s true I was interested in liminal states in an emotional and abstract sense too. The geographical edgeland is a backdrop for describing those.
I guess in some sense this human experience is always one of “becoming”, as much as we might crave it to be only one of “being”. The more the pace of the world seems to speed up through cultural and technological change, the more we always seem to be hurtling towards some other way of living.
NS: I read this almost like the three movements of a symphony with a fast-slow-fast movement. Talk about your organizational choices?
ML: Yes I guess you’re right. I knew I had three separate but related sequences of short prose pieces, adding up to a kind of triptych, all linked by the shared setting (and certain shared themes about relationships and mental health).
Originally I had the middle sequence (‘The Invisible World’) as the last one. It stood out as different – more meditative, more descriptive, closer to prose poems, and as much about the watery landscape of the canals and lakes of Rickmansworth as it is about a person. I thought, naively, it would be a more substantial way to end the book. But it was just sort of dangling out there as a third limb.
It was my wife who suggested putting this section in the middle. She was so obviously right! With the new order, there was a sense of symmetry, the energy picked up again in the final third, the mood became (slightly!) more comic again, and the pieces more character-driven once again. It also created the pattern that the main protagonists became progressively younger in age through the course of the book.
NS: I find it interesting that all three of the men in here are defined in some way by the women in their lives—loveless marriage, dead wife, fantasy woman. Comment.
ML: Yep, and I’d argue they’re defined by a need for non-sexual female companionship too. Women have been influential, stabilising influences in my own life and the book was intended as an exploration of what can happen to men if they aren’t connected in a healthy way to women, or to the feminine principle in general. I think it’s a big problem in some parts of our culture.
NS: You have super detailed eye to nature, especially in the second movement (Gus). Are you a secret botanist or gardener?
ML: Oh gosh I’m terrible! I never know the names for anything and am always wondering “what the hell type of plant is that?” If I had more time I’d definitely do a course of study in it. The book was a deliberate act of witnessing in terms of the local landscape, but I had to work with terms and concepts that were fairly familiar to my suburban soul. Eco-fiction for the suburbs?
NS: All three of these men are living lives of “quiet desperation” as Thoreau would say. It makes me wonder (and this has been a topic of conversation in wider circles): do you think we talk enough about men’s darkest emotions and weaknesses?
ML: There’s been improvement but I think there’s so much further we could go as a society. When I had my own struggles with my mental health starting in the mid-90s I had no preparation for it, no vocabulary or language or comfort with the territory. I was very aware of the fact that I was embarking into terrain that would mean I lost connection with some of my “closest” male friends. And I did. Not with all, but with some.
Things have got better in general since then, at least for the broad majority I think, in terms of awareness, understanding and acceptance of mental health issues. But we can go further. So many men are carrying profound wounds that are unexplored or unexpressed and just get acted out – in violence, aggression, intimidation, ruthlessness, lust for power, competitiveness, lack of empathy, problematic relationships etc. There are examples at the very top of our social food chain in both the US and the UK!
I’m very interested in the idea, from Jung, that we all need to come to terms with the feminine and masculine impulses within us, anima and animus as Jung put it, reconcile them and learn to express them healthily. I’m still working on this! (And when I’ve figured it out that’ll probably be the death of me as a writer! Haha).
NS: Your stories share locations—Bury Lake, Our Lady Help of Christians, etc. In Part 1, Denholm is even making a town diorama, which seems very telling. How does the shared location—or even just the location itself—facilitate these stories?
ML: My experience of this particular suburban “edgeland” was that I had very ambivalent feelings about living there – I felt like I was neither in London nor in the countryside, neither belonging nor not belonging, geographically on the margins, with something very significant glimpsed further off.
The physical experience of the landscape was the foundation for being between states emotionally too. I had this idea that “edgeland” locations might be sites for ambivalent, transitional, liminal experiences in fiction or poetry. (And it’s true – it’s reflected in films and TV, for example, when so many acts of transgression or secretive (often criminal!) acts take place on run-down industrial estates or in neglected woods or in empty warehouses out on the edge of town).
Rickmansworth is in the Three Rivers District of Hertfordshire, a valley where the Gade, Chess and Colne rivers converge (and feed into the Grand Union Canal between London and Birmingham). The manuscript began (as my MA dissertation) as something called “Three Rivers, Rickmansworth”, with the idea that each of the three third-person voices was a different “river”. So landscape and geography were feeding into it from the start.
NS: The three men’s stories don’t overtly overlap but they pass by one another, almost “pass the baton” from one to the next. This is one of those clever tricks that the flash novella form allows us to do. Talk about the form and how it informed the way you told these stories?
ML: Oh gosh. I could bore people for days about the novella-in-flash! Working on ‘Three Men on the Edge’ kindled what i think is going to be a lifelong love affair with the form. I’ve since written essays about it for SmokeLong Quarterly [http://www.smokelong.com/strange-feasts-and-where-to-find-them-twelve-more-great-flash-fiction-novels-novellas-part-iii/] and been lucky enough to judge the Bath Flash Fiction Award Novella-in-Flash competition for the past couple of years.
As I developed the book, I did a lot of research, exploring examples and “permission-givers” that might inspire me and influence me. There are so many great examples of novellas-in-flash or “flash novels” out there – your own included. I was conscious of the fact that I wanted ‘Three Men on the Edge’ to add something new to the conversation, so I tried to make it as close to prose poetry as the form could bear and use the structure of three related “mini-novellas” set in the same location.
I knew some readers who were looking for a stronger sense of plot might struggle with the book – there are other novellas-in-flash that have a much more explicit narrative arc, like a traditional novel has. But I hoped that other readers, perhaps ones who separately enjoyed reading poetry, might find it an interesting and unusual way of reading fiction, one where you’re asked to fill in lots of “gaps” – a suggestion of narrative rather than an actual narrative.
NS: This is your first book of prose, and it was shortlisted for the Saboteur Awards—congrats! Talk about your path to publication.
ML: Thanks! I spent a long time struggling with the project. It was hard writing three mini-novellas at once, especially when I hadn’t written fiction before. I could really have done with a mentor, but I didn’t think I could afford to pay for one, and I didn’t dare inflict all my drafts on my friends – I drafted well over 200 stories for it from 2011 to 2017, although only 64 made it into the final manuscript.
A writer who read one late draft (not far off the final manuscript – about 25 pages short of the final version) suggested I send it to her publisher. That was around December 2016. I got my hopes up, as a result, and was gutted when it was rejected – the publisher was planning a transition into an “even more experimental” direction, they said.
But ultimately that nudged me to do some more editing and add some more stories to beef up the manuscript – I basically rediscovered a number of stories that I’d written but abandoned over the previous few years of editing, and I couldn’t understand why I’d overlooked them. It was weird encountering them again – like someone else had written them. But the manuscript was better off for including them. I’m now relieved that that earlier version didn’t get published.
In the meantime, I’d read a couple of V. Press flash fiction pamphlets and liked them very much. Because of the hybrid nature of the manuscript, I knew I wanted to send it to a publishing house that dealt with poetry as well as fiction, as V. Press does. So when their submissions window opened again (for pamphlets) in the late summer 2017, I sent a very tentative enquiry about the possibility of them doing a full-length book. Thankfully, they were willing to consider it, although they had only done them for poetry before. I was still writing a few more stories after the manuscript was accepted (and in fact some that I really wanted to include were written too late for the publisher to agree to include them. They very gently suggested it was time to stop writing the book. Haha).
NS: Advice for writers who are writing a novella-in-flash or other book?
ML: Well, maybe don’t try writing three at once! Be patient, read lots of published writing, keep editing, seek feedback. If you can publish parts of it (if perhaps it’s a story collection or poetry collection) as you go along, then do so, it will give you – and a publisher – necessary belief in the book. Lastly, be protective of your baby and don’t rush it into the world. There are so many books already out there.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
ML: If you’re reading this blog and enjoy flash fiction, why not come to the Flash Fiction Festival in the UK – it’s in Bristol in the summer each year – June 19-21st in 2020. It’s an amazing, inspiring event, very welcoming and full of writerly camaraderie. Nancy and I will both be there teaching two workshops on the flash novel / novella-in-flash. And there are dozens of other brilliant workshops to choose from. https://www.flashfictionfestival.com/
NS: I second that! Thanks so much for playing, Michael!
ML: Thank you, Nancy, for inviting me to think about these interesting questions!
Michael Loveday’s novella-in-flash Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the 2019 Saboteur Award for Best Novella. He also writes poetry, with a pamphlet He Said / She Said published by HappenStance Press (2011). He specialises as an editor for novellas-in-flash: https://novella-in-flash.com/. Other info about his writing, editing and mentoring can be found at https://michaelloveday.com/ When he’s not found holed up in cafés in Bath, United Kingdom, reading manuscripts or doing his own writing, Michael enjoys the usual distractions of music, cinema, and countryside walks. He has a soft spot for very earnest songs by Bruce Springsteen.
I was inspired to address this issue after I read multiple social media posts, all from writers I admire, all lamenting that they “weren’t writing.”
Not writing is painful. Unfinished work sitting there is painful. You might beat yourself up with a bunch of “shoulds” and berate your lack of discipline. It can make you feel hopeless, drained of energy and questioning if it’s even worth it. No wonder you keep avoiding it!
But there are usually some very good reasons why you’re avoiding your work. To start with, you’re a better writer now. Just do the math: if you started even one year ago, then you’re a better writer now. And that’s a good thing! That’s the beauty of practice paying off. But it can also feel frustrating when you realize that first story or first draft, the one you labored over, might have made you a better writer but isn’t at your level anymore.
Or you’re in a different emotional place. Often the impetus that drove us to the page resolves or fades; whatever we were grappling with has been settled. Perhaps we’re on the other side of a life change, and the early writing was part of our process, but now we aren’t “feeling it.”
Or you’re overly loyal to your original vision. After all, you’ve probably put in countless hours of work. But sometimes we become too attached to our original vision; sometimes we’ve read and reread our sentences so many times we can’t imagine them any other way. And when we can’t imagine new possibilities for our work, when everything is known and nothing unknown…well, then it’s no wonder we’re not writing.
And, finally, you might be shifting gears. This almost always happens to me after finishing a big project. After a book for instance, I like to consider myself creatively postpartum, recovering from the birth and taking care of the new baby for at least 6-12 months. Anything I try to write in that time will end up sounding exactly like what I was writing before because I haven’t shifted gears, yet.
But it’s discouraging, regardless of the reason, to find yourself fallow, quiet.
So what to do?
1.Give yourself a break. The creative process ebbs and flows, and what goes up must go down…and back up again. Trust the process.
2. Read. I especially like to reread favorite books in these periods. Sink into the familiar and remember why you love words.
3: Remember: creation is ultimately play. Get silly and messy and re-discover what is joyful. Be curious. Be ridiculous. Be shameless. Take a bold risk into new territory and allow yourself to fail. Remember: no one has to know.
Love, Nancy xoxo
*excerpted from Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction coming this summer
In What A Body Remembers, Karen Stefano creates a horrifying page turner, all the more horrifying because it is true, honest, and vulnerable. What resonates in the reader’s mind is the lasting effects of gender and other power dynamics in their myriad configurations. Karen takes us into that thin, raw place that no woman (or man) wants to be forced to go—the night she went from Karen to “victim”—and the aftermath of a life transformed. While some might consider her lucky, this story is both timely and able to address so much more than just assault of the body. Together, old and new Karen converge in a growing understanding of her assailant, and herself, and the ways in which their lives intersected and were changed forever.
Nancy Stohlman: So I have to admit that I waited until I felt like I was emotionally ready before I read this book. But what I discovered was not the graphic horror I had anticipated but a different kind of frightening vulnerability, something I could relate to even though I (thankfully) haven’t experienced an event like this. Was the writing of this book difficult or liberating? Did it come out in one gush or small steps?
Karen Stefano: “A different kind of frightening vulnerability” is a great way to put it. In its early pages, the book shares a horrifying assault, followed by its aftermath, and a whole lot more. But at the heart of the story is a young woman who had never given much thought to her own vulnerability—and then post-assault she can think of nothing else. Talk about a game-changer for a life’s trajectory.
But ultimately there is growth, redemption, a strength that blooms unexpectedly from that awful night—and I hope it’s that strength readers walk away with when they turn the final page.
Telling this story was incredibly difficult and, as you can imagine, quite triggering at times. It wasn’t until the book was finished that I felt any sense of liberation. And sadly, absolutely nothing I’ve ever written has come out in a gush. This book is the product of many false starts, followed by baby steps, a lot of self-discipline, and blind faith. Writing for me is always an act of blind faith.
NS: The assault itself happens early on but the book continues to address the many fallouts of assault that follow, including fear, ridicule, judgment and shame from self, co-workers, boyfriends, parents, and even police. Do you think this is true of many people’s experience of assault?
KS: Focusing on the shame piece of this question, my response is: Sadly, I think it is. I’ve spoken to many sexual assault survivors and have read extensively on the topic. Shame, self-loathing, and self-doubt always seem to be a component of the post-assault experience, regardless of the type of assault. We burden ourselves further by blaming ourselves. “I shouldn’t have been drinking.” “I should have stopped him.” “I should have fought harder.” These are examples of post-assault self talk I have heard and read about. In my case, I blamed myself for walking home alone at night near midnight—even when I literally had no other option. Of course instead of the shame and self-blame victims experience, the real reaction should be HE SHOULDN’T HAVE FUCKING DONE THAT.
Something I’m interested in (and in fact am working on an essay on this topic as we speak) is rape culture. We’re so focused on teaching women how to avoid sexual assault—and that’s fine. But the real conversation we need to be having surrounds teaching men to not commit the sexual assault.
NS: I’m struck by the way you talk frankly about feeling “neediness” in the aftermath, and also feeling badly for that. Women are supposed to ridicule themselves for being needy—it’s part of the gender power dynamic/misogynistic game even though it’s a very real emotion that everyone feels. Your thoughts on this?
KS: Yes, I became extremely needy, and extremely ashamed for feeling that way. I wanted to be a strong, powerful woman, a woman un-phased by the trifle of the experience of having a stranger run up out of the darkness and hold a knife to my throat. Isn’t that absurd?!
I don’t know if the gender power dynamic tells women not to be needy. I haven’t really thought about that aspect. But I do know, and I talk about this in the book, that our culture tells women they are supposed to be a lot of different things, many of which conflict. We’re supposed to be beautiful (it’s a trillion dollar industry!), we’re supposed to be sexy (but not too sexy! We can’t be “sluts!”). We’re supposed to be smart, get into the best schools, take on high power jobs, all the while accepting that we will earn less than our male peers. And we’re supposed to do all of this while raising children, while being loving and compassionate and nurturing.
NS: What you are really addressing in the early years is PTSD, though at the time it didn’t have a vocabulary. I think naming and claiming language is political (in much the same way “naming” flash fiction established its legitimacy). What are your thoughts on PTSD then and now?
K: I don’t hold myself out as an authority on PTSD, but in my personal experience: it’s your body refusing to forget what your mind has worked so desperately to push down.
The American Psychiatric Association defines PTSD as a reaction to an extreme traumatic event. Psychiatrists say that when people live through trauma, memories get connected in their minds with what they saw, heard, smelled or felt at the time. Fear becomes linked to the sensations that occurred during the event. These sensations become triggers – in my case, the sound of footsteps.
As far as the role it has played in my life, it was acute in the months following my attack. Then it fell dormant for decades. Suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, it reappeared again. PTSD brings terror into everyday events: walking down the street, going for a run. It makes you feel completely out of control. It makes you feel like a crazy person. Logically you can argue why the panicked reaction makes no sense – but your body isn’t going to listen. It’s going to judge what reaction is appropriate – and that reaction is to experience terror and to demonstrate vigilance, even hyper-vigilance.
As shown in the book, my PTSD primarily manifested in two ways: a fear of the dark (a bit of a problem when you work in law enforcement and have to put on a police uniform and patrol a sprawling campus and surrounding crime ridden streets in darkness!); and a severe trigger by the sound of footsteps behind me.
NS: You have such a unique perspective, having been on three different “sides” of this incident in some capacity. How does your experience as a “victim,” a lawyer, and police aide inform your understanding of sexual assault?
KS: Primarily this three-tiered experience has made me aware of the many flaws in our criminal justice system. There have been changes in the law to enhance victim’s rights and many District Attorney’s offices have a victim liaison office. But based on my experience as both lawyer and victim, there is still room for improvement.
How do we achieve that improvement? Start with simple communication. Most victims don’t have the first clue what to expect from the system and that alone is extremely anxiety-inducing. DAs have to view themselves as advocates for victims in the system, just as criminal defense lawyers act as advocates for their clients. Simply telling a person what to expect procedurally from the system goes a long way toward helping those individuals navigate that system—whether they are victims or persons accused of crimes.
NS: I find it fascinating the way that you portray the courtroom as a place where there is “re-victimization.” For the reader, too, it feels equally as violating as the original event (not being allowed to do anything but “answer the questions,” for instance). You say: “It’s me who is on trial. I hadn’t known I would be subjected to such painful scrutiny, that I would feel so degraded, so at fault. I feel violated, helpless. Again.” I’m thinking now of public cases like Cosby and Weinstein—has there been any progress?
KS: Following up on what I said previously, there has definitely been progress but the system needs to do better—both for victims and for persons accused of crimes. The statistics on mass-incarceration and wrongly convicted defendants are staggering. In spite of my own experience as “victim,” I want to be clear that I believe cross-examination is a necessary tool. I believe in due process. I believe in holding prosecutors accountable, in making law enforcement play by the rules. But what’s so disheartening to me is the ability of wealthy, privileged, “untouchable” men like Weinstein to manipulate the criminal justice system to their advantage. The whole issue morphs into “How much justice can you afford?” My own assailant came from a wealthy family, by the way, allowing him the opportunity to hire a skilled, seasoned trial lawyer. Not everyone has those resources and the fact is that people of privilege get a better deal in our justice system. And that’s just wrong.
NS: I really love and appreciate that you have compassion, even fascination with your assailant. You become curious about him, his humanity and the way that, like it or not, we are forever linked to the people who share traumatic events with us. Do you think you have this level of empathy and compassion because of your time as a defense lawyer? Was it the chicken or the egg?
KS: There’s a flicker of compassion I suppose but in the context of appreciating all of our humanity, all of our complexities and contradictions. It’s a recognition that as humans we are inherently flawed. And to answer your question, this point of view is definitely a function of my time as a defense lawyer, of getting to know so many clients from so many backgrounds.
NS: You published this book with Rare Bird Books, and you host a podcast on Rare Bird Radio. Tell us a bit about the podcast.
KS: It’s one of my favorite things! I’ve been doing it since 2015 and I basically talk to writers about their books. Indie authors, Big 5 authors, and everything in between, covering virtually every form and genre. There are a lot of great literary podcasts out there but often I feel they go off topic. This podcast is about writing, publishing, and how we choose to tell our stories. Guests and I laugh, sometimes we cry. I’ve enjoyed every single one of them—all for different reasons. If you’ve missed them, they’re all on my web site: http://stefanokaren.com
NS: This isn’t your first book. You also published The Secret Game of Words, a very different kind of book, several years ago. What advice do you have for writers who want to write a book?
KS: My advice varies depending upon what kind of book that might be. Writing is hard. It requires vast amounts of both faith and self-discipline. You have to push yourself, force yourself to stay in the chair and finish a scene. But this becomes more delicate if you’re writing about trauma, about the ugliest parts of your own life. You have to consider: am I being self-disciplined, or am I pushing myself to the brink of emotional disaster? If you’re writing about trauma, you will likely get triggered and you need to have a plan in place to deal with this triggering. You have to have a plan in place for the emotional self care that will inevitably be required.
NS: You are the best! Thank you for being here and for doing the brave work.
Karen Stefano is the author of the memoir, What A Body Remembers: A Memoir of Sexual Assault and Its Aftermath (Rare Bird Books 2019). She is the author of the short story collection The Secret Games of Words (1GlimpsePress 2015) and the how-to business writing guide, Before Hitting Send (Dearborn 2011). Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, The Rumpus, Psychology Today, Writer’s Digest, Tampa Review, Epiphany, and elsewhere. She is also a JD/MBA with more than twenty years of complex litigation experience. To learn more about Karen and her writing, please visit http://stefanokaren.com.
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
Vocalist Nancy Stohlman and pianist Nick Busheff bring their popular lounge act to Bemis, performing classic love songs from the crooners and femme fatales of the past. From Ella to Elvis, from Sinatra to Peggy Lee to Marilyn Monroe, this show is sure to make you blush!
Vocalist Nancy Stohlman and pianist Nick Busheff have performed in nightclubs and theaters throughout the U.S. and abroad. They are best known for their swanky lounge-style approach to classic torch songs, 80’s and original music.
Sitting at the crossroads between flash fiction, poetry, and the novel, Michelle’s Elvy’s debut book in short form, the everrumble, is an allegory, a fable, a love affair with the world, and, considering what is happening to our planet right now: it’s a warning. In Elvy’s hands the everrumble is alive, the beating heart of the world. Only one small child can hear it. But sometimes one is enough.
Nancy Stohlman: This is your first book, congratulations! Talk about your path to publication with Ad Hoc fiction.
Michelle Elvy: For me, things usually happen serendipitously. I had two collections that were completed and ready for publication, mid-2018, and after thinking over the ideas behind both I decided I’d like to see the everrumble as my first book, because it holds something meaningful for me personally, and because the timing felt right. Jude Higgins at Ad Hoc agreed, and we worked towards publication for the UK Flash Fiction Festival, where the book’s launch seemed fitting, as it’s a small novel in small forms.
NS: I see this story almost as an allegory, similar to a book like, say, The Alchemist. Did you set out to write that kind of book or did it happen organically? Talk about the evolution of this project.
ME: It was an organic process – I had not planned to write the book it turned out to be. The idea of this young girl who would not talk came to me back in 2017, and I started writing down some of her stories. I did not have a biographical time line in mind; I just found moments from her life that seemed intriguing and followed them. Some came from her childhood, when she first starts to speak, then I wandered into her teen and adult years. It was an exploration from the beginning, moving step by step, tuning into Zettie in each situation – much like she listens to the world. First, there was Zettie’s immediate world. Then, I looked a bit further out – down the street, across town, in a different county. And soon I realised that Zettie (and I) did not need to be confined to the immediate physical surroundings – she could tune in beyond what felt like her ‘real’ physical space. As Zettie encountered new sounds, I’d have to tune in as well; I found myself thinking about how she’d respond, how she’d navigate through the different worlds she encountered, where she’d go next. It was an adventure.
NS: You have personally traveled the world many times over (for much of that on your boat), so your view, like Zettie’s, must have a sense of the world as a larger community. How are you like Zettie? How are you different?
ME: It’s true that my travels influence my world view, and therefore certainly the way I write. But as to how I’m like Zettie? Very hard for me to say. I find it liberating to think of this as fiction.
A bit taken from life: the books from Zettie’s Book Notes are all from our family travels and experiences – these are books that hold personal meaning. So in that way, there is a piece of me in Zettie’s story.
NS: Have you ever met a Zettie in your travels?
NS: One of the important moments in this story is Shamu’s capture. Without giving anything away, can you speak to the importance of this story within a story?
ME: I grew up with the idea of zoos and live aquarium shows. Seeing wild animals up close is exhilarating for a young child. Then we moved onto our sailboat and set out across the sea – we left North America, with no idea of where we’d end up. That was nearly twenty years ago. We have spent these years moving slowly, meandering across oceans and observing life at the edges of continents. We are often alone with no one around – no people other than our little community on board Momo (me, my husband and our two daughters) for weeks at a time. My appreciation for quiet and solitude has grown over these years – not something I planned, but something I now need, this space for reflection and energetic examination of my own relationship to the world.
An accumulation of experiences over the last twenty years has deepened my awe of the natural world – and also my sense of loss. Shamu’s capture is a dark moment in our human story. And it’s symbolic of so much more; our entire relationship to the wild animal kingdom is out of balance. From overfishing to contaminating our waterways with plastic to hunting rhinos to near-extinction to the massively corrupt and inhumane ivory trade. You know where I stand on elephants. That’s in Zettie’s story, too.
Am I an activist? Not really. But I feel the pull to saying something – and fiction is perhaps the best place to examine hard truths. I’m not someone who aims to write with a message. I really just wanted to see how Zettie might engage creatures whose voices may be lost.
My husband and I set out to live a small, quiet existence. But as it turns out, our personal encounters have changed the way we move through the world. We’ve seen diminishing fish populations firsthand, and we’ve seen far too many dying coral reefs. But we see the sea thriving, too – and that is inspiring. We’ve seen orca, humpbacks, dolphins, manta rays and so much more – vibrant and wild. Sharks and penguins, seahorses and octopuses, turtles and humpbacks. Also an inexplicable and powerful encounter with bioluminescence.
Our personal desire to simply disengage from the noisy world – Let’s go sailing! we said, back in 2000 – has given us experiences that I can’t quite measure. I guess it’s inevitable that they find their way into my writing. And so: Shamu and Zettie. Zettie and the African elephant. Connecting across thousands of miles.
NS: Zettie stops speaking at age 7 so she can start really listening. Do you think too much talking/not enough listening is the main crisis of modern humanity?
ME: I do not know if that is the main crisis – but it’s certainly a characteristic of the world we live in. I think we are in a moment in our human trajectory where the noise is very loud indeed: social media, television programming, news that may or may not be news. We seem to be putting out more than we are taking in – or than we ever could take in. I’m not alone in feeling the world is a bit out of balance.
So yes, sure – and I am not the first one to say this: we ought to try to listen more. To each other, to other creatures, to the sounds of the earth.
NS: If Zettie could speak and she could say only one thing what would it be?
NS: The Everrumble is what I would call a flash novel—coming right at the intersection between flash fiction and a novel. Yet this story could surely be a novel with all the nuances of a novel. What do you think are the advantages and/or limitations of using the short form to tell a big story?
ME: Oh I love the way a small story can convey so much – all that is between the lines, all that is left unsaid. Perhaps this goes hand in hand with listening: we can quiet down, read thoughtfully, and see what emerges with all that space.
In the case of these connected stories, yes: Zettie’s life unfolds over these pages in a way that feels like a novel to me. It’s more – I hope – than the words on the page. It’s what is there, and not there.
NS: What is your best advice to someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
ME: Sit down and start writing. And keep reading all the things – and listening to all the voices – that inspire you.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
ME: Thank you, Nancy, for talking with me. It’s exciting to see the book out in the world, and I appreciate you taking an interest!
Michelle Elvy is a writer and editor originally from the Chesapeake Bay, now based in Dunedin, New Zealand. Her book, the everrumble(Ad Hoc Fiction 2019) – a small novel in small forms – was published in 2019. She is Assistant Editor for the international Best Small Fictions series and founder of Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fictionand National Flash Fiction Day NZ. Her poetry, fiction, travel writing, creative nonfiction and reviews have been widely published and anthologised.
As an editor, Michelle works with novelists, short story writers, memoirists, essayists and poets to help them find their voice and hone their words. This year, in addition to her regular manuscript assessments and editing work, she is teaching an online writing course, 52|250 A Year of Writing, and co-editing the anthology Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand, with Paula Morris and James Norcliffe (August 2020).