Talking Flash with Nancy Stohlman: Exercises in Cross-Pollination

Nancy StohlmanNancy Stohlman is drawn to the performative in life and fiction, which means her words don’t seem to live just on the page. They tend to always be looking for a stage.

She recently published Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction, which won the 2021 Reader Views Award for nonfiction, so we talked with her about how the short stuff—”cupcakes,” as she calls flash fiction—feed her performative soul.

Nancy’s other books include Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities, The Monster Opera, and The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories, and her fiction has been anthologized widely, appearing in the W.W. Norton New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, Macmillan’s The Practice of Fiction, and The Best Small Fictions 2019, as well as adapted for the stage and screen.

She teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder and around the world. Find out more at www.nancystohlman.com.

Tell us about your journey as an author. When do you first remember deciding that you were a writer?

Like many writers, I took refuge in books early. I grew up in the military and most of my early childhood was spent overseas in Germany and Spain, so I didn’t have long-term friendships and I was living in places where I didn’t speak the language. Not to mention many long, transatlantic flights in military cargo planes (think no windows and having to wear earplugs).

As soon as I realized books could be my constant companions through all this moving around, and as soon as I discovered there was a wonderful invention called the library where I could borrow books for free, I was hooked. I started volunteering at the base library at age of 9, and I wrote my first screenplay, Superman: The Musical, when I was 10.

What draws you to short shorts?

I love the precision and delicacy of short shorts. After years writing traditional novels, I find the boundaries comforting. There’s an inherent discipline that happens inside those walls—it’s very hard to be self-indulgent. Flash fiction forces the focus off the writer and puts it back where it belongs: on the story.

What is the shortest story you’ve ever written?

Glad you asked!

 A One-Word Story

       Chlamydia

Why did you write Going Short?

Going Short is the book I wanted to read when I was starting out. I wrote it for my younger self, but I also wrote it for all the amazing flash writers I’ve worked with over the years, and all the flash writers to come who I may never meet. It’s my love letter to flash fiction.

Do you have a favorite chapter or quote?

Hmmm…I am certainly passionate about what I call the Flash Myth: debunking all the misinformed assumptions about flash fiction and/or its value, sophistication, and readership.

If you’ve worked with me, you know my classes are all about cross-pollination: visuals, art, music, dance, references to athletes, movies, etc. I think in metaphor. So I love that I was able to capture so many of my favorite teaching metaphors—from comparing erasure to a bay leaf, micros to a peep show, or editing to puberty—in the book for posterity.

I’ve heard you describe flash fiction as the cupcake of literature. Why is that the case?

Ha! Speaking of metaphors. That one came from an interview with April Bradley at Smokelong Quarterly, who also happens to be a wonderful baker and regularly tempts me with her delicious bread concoctions on Instagram. So I must have been hungry and thinking about baking, but the comparison is apt—there is a difference between a sheet cake and a cupcake, even if they’re both made with the same ingredients.

We choose a cupcake because we want the cupcake experience. We choose flash fiction because we want the flash experiences. It’s not an accident. The cupcake isn’t an accident.

What’s your favorite of the flash pieces you’ve written and why?

I have soft spots for the flashes that have been the genesis of a book. For instance, “The Fox” was the genesis of The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories; “My Mother was a Circus Clown” was the genesis of Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities. And “The Bad Thing” is the genesis of my recently finished book After the Rapture. But I’d have to say “Death Row Hugger” is the story that seems to connect with the most people. It’s even been made into a short film.

You’re a performer as well as a writer and teacher. Has performing influenced your writing at all?

Oh yes. They are so intertwined that I hardly know how to parse them apart. You can see that through the ridiculous lengths I’ll go to in my book trailers, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxrMMX81YXg&t=3s)  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZdOGFsjBlE&t=25s) and I’ve actually produced several of my books for stage, including a full length version of The Monster Opera.

Writing is a very solitary practice, and I don’t think you can do your best work writing if you are thinking about an audience. So for me, having a stage and an audience OUTSIDE of the writing part keep me balanced.

If you could go on a road trip with an author, living, dead, or somewhere in between, who would it be, and where would you go?

Ha. Love this question. I used to live in a van and travel the country with the Renaissance Faire, so I know not everyone is good on a road trip. The scenery might be boring. Or you may have to drive eight hours across Kansas and break down twice because, you know, you’re driving a 30-year-old tricked-out conversion van that dreams of retirement.

I’ve also hitchhiked across the country, mostly caught rides with truckers who smoke a lot and talk a lot and are grateful for the company.

The point is: it has to be the right person. Someone who’s okay being silent as much as talking. I bet Hemingway could change a tire if we broke down. I bet Margaret Atwood and I would eat French Onion dip and chips and stop at every roadside attraction.

But you know who I would really like to take on a road trip? Grant Faulkner. And do you know where we would go on that road trip? To the flash fiction capital of the United States: Denver! You’ll love it, Grant! Pack a bag and some Funyuns—let’s do this!

[Editor’s note: Everyone knows the Bay Area is the Flash Fiction Capital of the U.S.]

What advice would you give to your younger writing self?

Don’t throw away that first screenplay, Superman: The Musical, in a dumpster when you’re leaving for college. It might be incredibly dumb, and the musical numbers, like Lex Luthor’s “I’ll Rule the World” might be cliché, but don’t do it.

Also this writing thing might take a while. Keep your eye on the big picture and the small details. And remember: in all things and every area of your life, your creativity is your greatest asset.

P.S. Quit smoking now, it isn’t cool.

What advice would you give to your older writing self?

Don’t forget how it feels to be hungry. You don’t have to be drunk or heartbroken or seeped in drama. But remember the hunger, always.

Do constraints or an aesthetic of brevity have a place in your life off the page? Do you decorate or travel or look at art with notions or principles of brevity in mind?

I love this question because I’ve never considered this before. But yes, I think they must. Regardless of the genre, I’m always asking: How can this one frame, this one minute of film, or these 100 words invite you into my entire world?

For more, see an exercise from Nancy’s book, Going Short: Cut It in Half.

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