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

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

“I’m Being Stalked By The Avon Lady” nominated for The Best of The Web!

Flash fiction by Nancy Stohlman

At first it wasn’t so bad. She’d show up in her pencil skirts and French manicures and support hose and I just thought it was good customer service. But soon I started noticing little extras inside the plastic bags, weird hearts drawn next to her phone number, and then one morning I caught her peeking in my front windows when I didn’t have to be at work early. When I said “What are you doing?” she blushed and tried to hand me this month’s Birthstone Bracelet. It was green—August. I’m sure I’d never told her my birthday.

The next week she was back, delivering wrinkle creams in white paper bags. She rang my doorbell even though I hadn’t ordered anything. I stood on the other side of the screen suspiciously. I wanted to give you some samples of our new bath elixir bulbs, she said. Please. I cracked the door enough to grab one. You just put them in the bath and they are so fantastic. But her voice was shaky on the word fantastic and inside the bag was a note: Help me.

I thought about calling Avon Customer Service but I decided to follow her instead. She unlocked a normal looking two story home and I saw a tiny basement window turn on. I got close enough to see the floor piled up with undelivered books and empty plastic baggies. I could hear muffled screaming and then a glass tube splattered against the wall, its contents oozing to the floor.

I returned after dark and positioned myself again by the tiny window; I tapped softly on the glass and she came, wearing the latest shade of Sassy Tangerine lipstick. Take this she said, passing me a pair of 14 k Metallic Sweetheart earrings on sale this month only. Hurry, they’ll be back soon she said, pushing the earrings through the bars.

The next day I saw her in the neighborhood delivering Avon books out of a little red wagon in her faux leopard print pumps. She was wearing sunglasses, a dark spot on her chin that had been shabbily concealed with new Daywear Delight All Day Foundation. I found myself hating her, hating all her stupid lipstick samples and her childish gullibility.

The next week there was a new lady, a bright smiled woman wearing a fuchsia two-piece suit and last season’s Whimsical Woods body fragrance. What happened to the other one? I asked. She didn’t work out, the new Avon lady answered.

Originally published May 28, 2013 by Cease, Cows. Read original here

“The Fox”

foxFlash Fiction By Nancy Stohlman

I first saw him on the dirt bike path behind the Lightrail. He was 50 yards away, scratching in the sun, reddish brown coat, black paws, white belly. I stayed very still, and when he didn’t run I took a soft step, wondering how close I could get. He preened until I was quite close; his nose was long and sweet. And then, when I was just 10 feet away, he excused himself into the bushes with calculated nonchalance, a final flick of his white-tipped tail.

I walked the rest of the way home feeling exquisite.

Later on my porch, in the temptations of dusk, I sensed him before I saw him, emerging from the overgrowth and into the din of the streetlights. He had the curious look of a boy, new and fresh and wild and sensuous, with vulnerable brown eyes.

I thought about leaving food but I was afraid the squirrels would get it. So instead I left my pillow—covered in the smells of me at my most peaceful and innocent. An invitation. That night he entered my dreams and I embraced a coarse lean body, strong, wiry legs wrapped around my waist in an almost human way.

In the morning the pillow had been nested in, a few scattered white hairs left in the circular impression of his body. I held it to my nose and inhaled the musky, wild smell.

Each night I left the pillow on my porch and each night he returned, inching it closer to the front door until the night I left the door open. The moon cast a square beam onto the living room floor, and there I lay, almost sick with nervousness, when I felt bristles of fur tickle the edge of the sheet. His nose brushed my toe, touched my hair. I held my breath. He circled a few times, gently trampling down the bedding, then settled behind me, his face tucked into the crook of my neck.

The wind blew through the open door and smoothed our entwined faces. I surrendered to sleep in the hazy, bird-chirpy morning, and when I woke he was gone.

But I found his gift left lovingly for me on the pillow: my black cat, lifeless. I felt strangely unmoved as I sniffed it, nudged it with my nose.

Originally published in Santa Fe Literary Review. Read original

“The Private Investigator”

Flash fiction by Nancy Stohlman

I walked into his office and closed the door. There were piles of papers everywhere and a deer head hanging on the wall.

What can I do for you? he asked.

Well, I just don’t know what I’m doing half the time anymore, I said. I think it would be great if you could keep an eye on me.

Sure, he said. Is someone threatening you?3.21-PI

No, nothing like that. It’s just me. I can’t trust myself.

Any clues or suspicions?

No … but the whole thing is pretty suspicious.

He pats my hand. You’ve done the right thing, he says. Usually if you suspect something to be true, it is.

I left his office feeling much better. Almost immediately the eyes were upon me—cars that followed a bit too close and too long, people watching me from across the street. At home a red light blinked between the books on my bookshelf.

A week later I returned to his office. Well, we have news to report, he says. Are you ready?

Yes, I nodded, sitting down.

The first picture was my car parked in front of the post office. If you’ll notice, he says, circling areas of the photo, this is a no parking zone and the sign is clearly displayed. The subject arrived at 3:14 and parked for 23 minutes, in blatant violation.

I nodded, didn’t say anything as he handed me the photo.

During the car ride home, subject picked her nose and then, after looking around, consumed it. At 5:17 subject arrived home, drew all the blinds, and proceeded to watch XXX rated videos for 17 minutes, the final one, 80-year-old grandpa does his nurse, commencing in what we presume was an orgasm.

Subject, after watching said video, stared at the computer for one hour and forty-six minutes without pants on. The phone rang on three different occasions and the subject ignored the calls without even checking the caller ID.

Subject smoked marijuana at 9:16 and then took a bath while drinking an airplane-sized bottle of cinnamon flavored whiskey. During the bath, subject appeared to have a conversation with no one that lasted for 11 minutes.

At 11:34, subject got into bed and read a book until 12:13, when she turned off the lamp to presumably sleep. Then the most curious of all: at 12:21, just 8 minutes later, the subject got out of bed and laid directly in the middle of a moonbeam shining through the skylight. Subject cried until 12:31.

After that, our man couldn’t see anything else. He handed the stack of pictures to me.

I sighed. I’m not completely surprised.

If it makes you feel any better, I see this kind of thing all the time.

I guess it’s just better to know for sure.

I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you, he added, handing me a tissue.

 Originally published in Atticus Review. Read original here.

Finish That Manuscript (And Get it Out Into The World): A Virtual Workshop

Do you have a manuscript you’ve been sitting on forever? Are you stuck in the writing phase or in the revision process? Or have you “finished” but not gotten the response you wanted out in the world?

In this workshop on finishing we will explore:
• What’s keeping you from finishing?
• Are your blocks telling you something about your manuscript?
• How to fall back in love with your work and your vision
• Allowing your manuscript to transform
• Publication—is your manuscript ready to send into the world?
• The different stages of “finishing” a manuscript
• Self-promotion—are you afraid of rejection? (You’re not alone.)
• Finding the support you need to take the next steps

writers-blockIn this 4-week virtual workshop I’ll give you the deadlines you might need, help you structure your writing time into your life, help you transition more easily between creation and revision, and help you become your own best editor. Whether you are planning to submit or self publish, you’ll learn writing tips, editorial and publication advice, how to excerpt and query, and even when to let a manuscript go. And most importantly, you’ll finally rescue your work from the desk drawer and give yourself the satisfaction of completion.

The workshop format will include weekly online instruction, telephone check-ins, and professional line edits (limited). Both fiction and nonfiction manuscripts are welcome.

Begins July 1. For late registration or a free info call contact me ASAP at

Let’s do it.

Finish That Manuscript: Free Workshop Preview Tuesday, June 25th

Summer Project #1: Finish That Manuscript

Each book we write brings us closer to understanding how to write a book. What phase of the finishing process are you in? And…what’s it costing you to not finish?

Three Types of “Finishing”

1. Crossing the Finish Line. In this phase, you’re creating, allowing, and writing yourself to the finish line of that first draft, where you can write The End and give yourself that well deserved glass of port.

In this phase you need the support, motivation, and commitment to get to the end. A first draft is like a lump of clay—it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does need to be complete before you can start shaping it into the grand vessel it will become.

2. Alligator Wrestling. In this phase you’ve finished a first draft and now you’re in the revision—re-visioning—process. Re-vision. Seeing again. Sometimes it’s hard to see your manuscript with fresh eyes—like looking for your sunglasses when they’re on your head. Yet the true writing magic usually happens in revisions.

In this phase you need new ways of seeing your manuscript differently, both in pieces and as a whole, as well as identifying your strengths and weaknesses as a writer and inviting the potent potential of unexpected possibilities into your work.

3. Becoming a Player. In this phase you and your manuscript prepare to enter the public arena, and the “finishing” has just as much to do with you as a professional. This is the point where we usually long for an agent to swoop in and do all the uncomfortable work of promoting ourselves, but the catch here is that if we want to be taken seriously, we have to start playing seriously.

In this phase you need help with promotional and professional materials including bios, queries, how and why to excerpt, and learning how to avoid the mistakes of looking like an amateur—regardless of your publishing goals.

*Tuesday, June 25th at 7 pm MST, join me for a 30-min FREE WORKSHOP PREVIEW.

Contact me for registration information at


“Requiem for Piano”

Flash fiction by Nancy Stohlman

She’d been slipping away from him slowly, as the things that hurt most do. He woke one morning and nuzzled his arm into the swooping curve of her waist only to find it cold, with a hardened glossy varnish that could only mean to keep him out. He tried to fit his body into the new curve but it was stiff and unforgiving.

Her long ballerina arms and legs were next. They, too, hardened and reached for the floor, anchoring her growing weight until she became too heavy to move. Her ribs cracked open and widened into a wooden soundboard, the strands of her long curly hair stiffened and elongated until he could no longer run his fingers through them. Pulled taut, they vibrated and wept if touched, crying the last of the unshed tears that now landed like dampened hammers on strings.

It was happening but he couldn’t stop it, could only awaken each morning to what remained of his beloved and take frightened inventory: her toes reduced to golden pedals, her polished satin black skin, her long spine a lacquered lid that reflected his bewilderment.

Her face went last. On that final morning her smile stretched into 88 white ivories, feathered with the sharps and flats of dark lashes. In the soft morning light he played a requiem on her still-warm keys, propping the lid to listen to her heart.

Originally published in Literary Orphans. Read original here.

Ask A Flash Fiction Editor: Endings

A brilliant ending should make you go whoa. And reread.  And go whoa again.

Whoa can mean a lot of things: whoa—how messed up, or whoa—how poignant, or whoa—how surprising, or whoa—how perfect. But regardless it should punch you in the heart or the gut or the head or maybe several at once. And even if it’s just a little pinch it should still leave a mark.

I’d like to thank Brenda Morisse for allowing us to use her piece-in-progress, “Mixed Up With Jesus” (full text below) to talk about endings in general and flash fiction endings in particular. Beginnings and endings are like bookends—all the care taken to hook a reader into a story must be utilized in the same way to cast them out—shaken and forever changed. And this is especially true in flash fiction, where a reader is going from beginning to ending in one sitting.

Riding into the sunsetYour ending is the final ringing note of your entire story.

Many writers, even those who begin beautifully, underestimate the importance of endings. How many of us were taught in school that a “conclusion” was just a wrapping up, a clever regurgitation of everything already said? Brilliant endings, if they were discussed at all, were held at a distance like sorcery, admired but not imitated.

Endings used to be a huge struggle for me. I would conceive, craft and execute a compelling story, but once I’d said everything I wanted to, I’d just tack on a “bow” at the end. In graduate school, Danielle Dutton had us separately examine our beginnings, middles, and endings. We first examined our openings, where and how we began. Then we examined our middles, how we kept the tension always pulsing. And then, just as we were getting ready to examine our endings, she threw a wrench in the whole plan and made this suggestion: What if the middle IS the end?

With great discomfort, we turned back to our stories: What if this juicy middle thing I just wrote while under the auspices that I still had more time to “tie it all up” is really the end? What if there is no need for that clever bow, that concluding paragraph…what if it’s just…done?

Because that’s how it happens in real life anyway, isn’t it?

Most writers either over or underwrite their endings. If you are overwriting your ending, then chances are the true final ringing note of your story is actually buried in the territory of what you are now calling the middle. If you are underwriting your ending, it probably means that the most crucial part of the story arc still hasn’t happened yet—the story isn’t done. In that case it’s about turning the knife just one more time and seeing what else happens.

So with all that in mind, Brenda, let’s talk about your work and particularly the ending of your story, “Mixed Up With Jesus.”

But before we talk about the ending, let’s talk about everything else. Everything else is so fun! I believe there is so much “real” in the surreal, and I love reading stories that are able to create the duality of subtext underneath a story that on the surface seems absurd. And I love what you’ve done with the figure of Jesus, putting someone so symbolic and archetypal into the unpleasantry and awkwardness of modern relationships. Did you know that Burroughs claimed 40% of his material came from dreams. Free inspiration, all night long!

But let’s look at your ending, which is still a bit shy of the mark. Let’s consider cutting it back, seeing if your ending is really in your middle. To do that, I looked for what felt like a final ringing moment within the middle of the story, and I landed in this paragraph:

Finally He breaks the silence. “Remember when you wanted to marry me and live in a convent and wear the holy face all day? Remember how you balanced on that slippery rock that glistened under a waterfall in Tannersville, naked? And that time behind the bushes in a park, when the stranger moaned you’ll remember this forever. And you said, I will?”

My hunch is your ending might be hovering around here—there’s something about this moment in the exchange that feels the most rich with opportunity. The characters are heading into some potential final knife twist—maybe you haven’t nailed the exact wording yet, but it feels like it’s just a phrase or two away from the “whoa”. Because here’s the problem with humor—as soon as we “get” it, we’re over it. Comedy—like drama—consists of an ever growing escalation of surprises. In this story, we love the novelty and parody of Jesus in such a non-Jesus situation. But the humor needs to continually change or else it will be like the same joke is stretched too far. So maybe in these final moments the story goes into another level of weird. Or maybe it stops and becomes incredibly poignant. Or maybe it gets outrageous. Perhaps in these final moments one last thing is revealed. Or perhaps it happens in the silences.

What currently follows—the spot on the dress and the idea of singing karaoke—that’s funny, you can keep it if you choose—but rearrange it to come earlier rather than leaving it in the privileged final slot.

The good news about endings is the work is often just excavating and shaping—and realizing that the perfect ending may already be there, fully formed, right in front of your eyes.

Happy Writing!

~Nancy Stohlman

Thanks again to Brenda Morisse and to all the writers who have shared their work-in-progress so far, including: Peter Cowlam, Diane Klammer, Cath Barton, M, Rosemary Royston, Nicholas Michael Ravnikar and Ellen Orleans. I believe the difference between an amateur and a professional is the professional writer’s willingness to always be a beginner, and each of these writers has been incredibly generous with their process—thank you.

(Do you have a  flash fiction piece in progress you’d like to submit for a future conversation? Email me at or find me on Facebook.)


Mixed Up with Jesus

By Brenda Morisse

There’s been no dancing since the flood because the earth is still starved and quick to tug at my tango. So when Jesus waltzes into my dream, I try not to worry, even though death seems to follow my callers and suffering through another Good Friday waiting on God’s travel arrangements is more than I can bear.

I nonchalantly check for stigmata, offer cocktails. “Make yourself at home, at least take off your gloves,” I say. He shakes His head no, but after reading my mind, He shrugs. “Believe what you want to believe, I know who I am and I like to dance, too.” Before I can demand references or a parlour trick to raise my dog, Tallulah, from the dead, He asks if I can Hustle.

“The Hustle? I didn’t do the Hustle when I did the Hustle. You should know that!” I scold. I roll my eyes at Him and then He rolls His eyes, and I roll my eyes back. “You’re funny.” He laughs. “I’ve always known you’d look like Anthony Quinn,” I whisper. He tells me that I’ve never learned how to let things die.

“You would have given the canary mouth to mouth and what if you had swallowed its head? Even the soap. Look at how you tape all the other last breath slivers together. And your new habit of spitting on old words.”

“True, but you’re the one who won’t die.”

“Relax your grip,” He says. I inch my vintage opera gloves up over my arms. “Lovely.” We small talk until dinnertime when He snoops around in the kitchen for a snack. “Sorry I haven’t cooked since the disaster,” I say.

“Want to grab a bite?”

I ask, “Like on a date?” And He says, “Sure. How about the Dominican restaurant across the street?” We’re seated at the darkened table in the corner with first date awkwardness crowded between us, so I glance up and notice that the patrons and waiters are staring at us. I look at Him and He’s glowing, and then check my reflection. I’m glowing too. So there we sit, glowing face to face into each other’s eyes.

Finally He breaks the silence. “Remember when you wanted to marry me and live in a convent and wear the holy face all day? Remember how you balanced on that slippery rock that glistened under a waterfall in Tannersville, naked? And that time behind the bushes in a park, when the stranger moaned you’ll remember this forever. And you said, I will?”

We only pick at the fish dinner but we drink wine until we’re tipsy and the wineglass tips. I ask Him to clean the spot on my dress. He says, “Just because a god rises from the dead doesn’t mean He’s at your beck and call Him when you need the laundry done.” I change the subject with a sigh and then read the sign at the bar, aloud. Karaoke esta noche.

“Do you know the words to it?” He asks.

“Yes! Do it. Do the hustle. Ooh. Do the hustle.”