Meg Pokrass interviews Nancy Stohlman about her stories in New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) and her new forthcoming flash fiction collection, MADAM VELVET’S CABARET OF ODDITIES. This interview is part of New Flash Fiction Review’s ongoing New Micro Interviews series
MP: In “Death Row Hugger” I admire how it is written with a great deal of humor. There is that wonderful, fantastical line about prisoners eating steak or lobster or smoking Cuban cigars on their last day, and yet there is a strong feeling of sadness about the story, particularly in the end. How did this piece come about? Can you tell us anything about your relationship to creating comic/tragic stories?
NS: “Death Row Hugger” arrived initially as a dream—many of my pieces do. In the dream I had this strange but very strong sense of loss: I was in a very dark room and I was hugging someone and there was this very sad and almost desperate quality to the hug. I woke up still feeling this hug tingling on my skin and how unsettling it was and quickly jotted down whatever I could remember in the notebook by my bed. This story was one of those special gifts where the whole story rises out of the dream ether fully formed.
In terms of comic/tragic stories—that’s an interesting question because I don’t do it intentionally—I think the world is funny and tragic and raw and beautiful and so maybe the ideas that strike me as worthy of actually writing down always naturally reflect those qualities.
MP: In “I Found Your Voodoo Doll on the Dance Floor After Last Call” there’s a mystical quality. The way you bring in the voodoo doll is very visual and disturbing. We’re looking at it just as your speaker is, and as the story rolls on, we realize that she is becoming the voodoo doll, rather than the other way around. Here, you open the story up with the doll as metaphor in the first sentence. How important is the first sentence in microfiction?
NS: The first sentence is key in every piece of writing, from fiction to journalism. So on one level the first sentence in flash or micro is not more or less important than the first sentence in a novel—except in a novel we might give an author a paragraph or even a whole page before we stop reading. In microfiction, the paragraph is the entire story. So you really have to jump in and not hold back.
In “I Found Your Voodoo Doll…” the title is a setup into that first sentence, so the story really begins before the story begins, even. Because we are working in such constrained spaces, flash writers have discovered how to make use out of every possible space.
MP: Please tell us anything you would like to tell about the writing of both of these stories, and how these stories came about.
NS: Over the last 10 years I’ve turned away from realism in my work. My first book, Searching for Suzi: a flash novel, was very realistic. Too realistic. And that plus the first-person narrator led people to assume it was a memoir. I hated that. Now I always look for the backdoor into my ideas—I rarely come at them head on. And no one has ever asked me if I was really a death row hugger or if I ever turned into a voodoo doll, even though—and this is the irony–there is a great deal of Truth in both these stories. It’s the big T truth vs the little truth. I like the big Truth but I don’t care about whether something is true or not.
MP: Congratulations on your new collection, MADAM VELVET’S CABARET OF ODDITIES! Can you tell us why the world of circus life, the world of clowns, and side-show oddities and performers became your focus?
NS: Thank you! And so many ways to answer this question! So, I’ve been on stage since I was very little in one way or another. Actually my very first memory is of being wheeled around the Barnum and Bailey circus ring (with some other kids picked from the audience) by clowns. I remember the feeling of spotlights so bright I couldn’t see my parents in the audience at all, and I remember the clowns talking to each other like regular people and it occurred to me that they were regular people. Then when I was about 10 my mother actually became a clown (she was nothing like the clown in the book) and used to recruit us to come “clown” with her: at the retirement community, at the town picnics and parades and such. I loved recognizing my friends from school and realizing they had no idea who I was when I was in clown makeup.
But maybe the biggest impetus to write this book was the years I spent traveling with the Renaissance Festival. It was a weird and wonderful American pastoral time—I was in my early 20s, I lived in a van and traveled all over the country, city to city—I’ve been to 47 states. And I’ve tried to write about those years many times—I wrote a bad (unpublished) novel called American Gypsy years ago. But as I said earlier, I have an aversion to telling a story straight—I have to come at it slant. And considering the reality of this/that life is pretty crazy to begin with, it took me a long time to find the right back door into the material.
MP: There is so much humor in this collection! Many of the pieces had me laughing. But as always with your work, there is an element of sadness. Do you write funny/sad pieces intentionally, or does this happen to you unconsciously?
NS: I’m so glad to hear that, thank you. And I’m guessing it shows up a lot for me because it’s just the way my literary radar is tuned. I’ve always been attuned to the sad in the funny and the funny in the sad. You notice what you notice.
MP: Can you tell us about the path to publication for this collection?
NS: That path with this book was unusually long and challenging. I finished the manuscript in 2015 and found my agent in 2016, and just as she was sending it out into the world I was hit by a drunk driver going 90 mph on the highway—he was going the other direction and crossed over the median and hit me almost head on and I’m truly lucky to be here at all. But…everything about my writing went on hold: from the manuscript to my own creative process. I spent a very tough year or more knowing that my muse would return… but I was really tested. There is nothing I trust more than the creative process, so I knew if I was just patient and just kept breathing and just kept showing up the momentum would start again. But it was very hard to be patient, and there is nothing worse than a writer who isn’t writing.
So, for a while, Madam Velvet felt stillborn, and that loss, plus the challenges of recovery (physical and emotional) made it difficult for me to reconnect with my creative side. I wrote a lot of nonfiction during that time. Finally, at the end of 2017 when I was feeling stronger and healed and ready, we started sending it out again. In the end I found the perfect flash fiction-friendly home with Big Table Publishing. I’m thrilled!
MP: Why is the world of performers interesting to us as readers? I personally feel it has something to do with vulnerability and risk. Do you have thoughts about this?
NS: I’m not sure I’ve ever really thought about that question before. I can’t speak for everyone but since I grew up on so many various stages, the stage–the spotlight–was always intoxicating to me.
But maybe we are just drawn to people whose lives seem bigger, weirder, or more interesting than ours. Perhaps we all want to see the extremes of amazing and grotesque in order to find our own place in the universe? Classic performers like the ones in Madam Velvet must have been like a vintage reality show to the people at that time.
What’s interesting to me is the way taboos have shifted—in the 1800s a traveling circus would have bearded ladies and little people—but also tattooed people and even the Long-Haired Lady, whose only real fame was having grown hair to her waist. It was about breaking the social norms and taboos of the day. And then the rest of us, the audience, sharing that urge to see the taboo being broken without having to break it ourselves. Like a voyeuristic vertigo.
MP: In many pieces, the narrator is speaking to her reflection, who is a wonderful character in the collection, quite separate from the speaker. How did the idea for this reflection character come to you?
NS: I can’t remember now exactly how the reflection as her own character came to me, but I’ve often created projected characters that aren’t human. In my last book, The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories, the narrator has an affair with a fox. I think this is part of how I hide inside my work. Breaking the confines and expectations of realism actually allows me to get closer to the truth of what I’m trying to say without getting so caught up in real people or characters in the traditional sense.
MP: I find myself pulling for the characters in your stories. How do you, as writer, make us care about your characters? Does it have to do with vulnerability? Humor? Self-deprecation?
NS: It’s funny because I don’t feel like I “create” characters as much as I receive them—they show up and I listen. I often begin with a stock or cliché character, which goes against all the traditional advice out there on writing. And from the cliché I find the individual, I unearth the humanity. Do I do this consciously? No. But the truth is we all live in a world of cliche—so sitting down and attempting pure, untainted originality is daunting no matter how long you have been writing. So I start with the cliché and take it on a journey of self-discovery instead. They reveal themselves to me in the unfolding.
MP: I admire your titles, they really set the stage for what is to come. How important is it to set the story in motion in the title and first sentence?
NS: Thank you! I think that’s the journalist in me coming out. The who-what-where-when-how and why served upfront and without apology is an effective communication tool in journalism, which, if you think about it, is another genre that operates within constraints (page/size constraints) And it works great in flash fiction, too. Why beat around the bush?
MP: What, in your opinion, are the unique challenges for a writer in writing very short prose?
NS: Well, and here is the crossover with poetry, there is a very real constraint. But the constraint is both the challenge and the beauty of the form—interesting things bulge up against that boundary, things that may not have happened any other way. But it’s important, especially for a new flash writer, to realize that not every story lends itself to flash or micro fiction. Some stories need the space of a novel. Flash always leaves a little something to the imagination.
MP: A micro, a poem, and a novel walk into a bar. What happens?
NS: I’m going to say that the novel starts talking everyone’s ear off, the poem sits at the bar and ignores everyone, and the micro starts a karaoke contest called Karaoke Roulette, where all the other people in the bar line up to sing but they have to pick their song out of a hat.
MP: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I have a couple of projects I’m working on. One is the result of all the non-fiction I wrote when I was recovering from my accident, which became a craft book, Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction, that I’m finishing now. I’ll be on a panel at AWP 2019 in Portland called “Grandmasters of Flash: They Wrote the Book on It” with David Galef, Randall Brown, and John Dufresne where I’ll be talking about that book and the unique challenges of writing a craft book.
I’m also deep into new material. One of my recent stories, “Tiny House”, was published here on New Flash Fiction Review earlier this year, thanks for that! I won’t say more about that project yet except I’m very excited to be writing again!
And finally I’m pretty excited about a new venture with Kathy Fish: Flash Fiction Retreats. We’re gathering flash fiction writers in lovely and inspiring locations to write, rest, write, play, write and play and rest. We had our first retreat in Colorado this past August and it was a blast. We have others coming up in Costa Rica and Italy so get in touch if you want to know more.
MP: And speaking of gatherings, we enjoyed having you with us at Flash Fiction Festival, U.K. in Bristol last July, 2018!
NS: Yes! I was so happy to meet you there! It was a really lovely event and I enjoyed meeting and communing with so many flash fiction writers in such a positive space. The Festival team did an amazing job—congratulations!
MP: Thank you! We’re thrilled about it and look forward to seeing you again at our next festival in June 28 – 30, 2019!
Nancy Stohlman is the author of The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories (2014), the flash novels The Monster Opera (2013) and Searching for Suzi (2009), and three anthologies including Fast Forward: The Mix Tape (2010), which was a finalist for a 2011 Colorado Book Award. She is the creator and curator of The Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series and the creator of FlashNano in November. She lives in Denver and teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her newest book, Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities, is forthcoming in the fall of 2018.