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SunLit Interviews

Obsession with the circus ignited this work of flash fiction that examines the freak show we inhabit

Author Nancy Stohlman reminds us that we're all on some sort of stage, and there are many ways we pay to stare at others

"Madame Velvet's Cabaret of Oddities" author Nancy Stohlman.

Nancy Stohlman is the author of ”Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities,” ”The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories,” the flash novels ”The Monster Opera” and ”Searching for Suzi,” and three anthologies of flash fiction including ”Fast Forward: The Mix Tape.” She is the creator and curator of The Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series, the creator of FlashNano in November, and her work has been published in the W.W. Norton anthology “New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction” and will be included in the 2019 “Best Small Fictions.” She lives in Denver and teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder. Find out more at www.nancystohlman.com.

The following is an interview with Nancy Stohlman.

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


What inspired you to write this book?

This book is the result of an almost 20-year obsession with the circus and trying to reconcile my years living and traveling with the Renaissance Festival.  But it didn’t start out that way. Most of my books happen organically and that is the special beauty of a book in flash fiction—you start writing the pieces before you realize what the big picture is about. It took me a long time to figure that part out, and maybe I still don’t even know. It’s certainly about other societies, doppelganger societies and people living on the fringe. The truth is just because we don’t have “official” traveling freak shows now doesn’t mean we aren’t still staring–there are so many ways that we pay to stare at others—the freaks just look different, now.

“Madame Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities.”

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

As a flash fiction writer I’m drawn to lean prose and dense ideas. It’s cliché but I’ve always been inspired by lean Hemingway’s prose, but I like the lyrical, arabesque storytelling of “The Virgin Suicides,” by Jeffrey Eugenides, and “The Lover” by Margarite Duras. I love twisted and difficult stories, like “1984 and “Lolita” and I recently discovered Japanese writer Kobo Abe and his wonderful book “The Woman in the Dunes.” I’m also very inspired by the movies of Alain Resnais and the Pop Art movement, especially Andy Warhol. I like to think that I’m writing in the Pop Lit movement.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

There are multiple threads that run through “Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities,” so I wanted to give a taste of how it works, a sense of narrative flow. In the book these stories don’t come back to back—they would come sprinkled throughout, maybe next to stories of the Four-Legged Woman or the Thin Man. I extracted some threads and put them all together so the reader can see how the playful juxtaposition of individual pieces works like a mosaic to create something bigger as a whole as well. The book has many of these braided threads…but this one with the clown mother is one of my favorites.

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

Any time I’m working on a book and the manuscript has momentum and is revealing itself to be an actual manuscript and not just a bunch of random ideas—that’s the sweet spot. To be gripped in the process of a manuscript that has momentum is like falling in love—the world is Technicolor and the birds are forever singing. It’s the in-between that’s the hardest—the between manuscript time, when you are still post-partum, hemorrhaging from the birth of the last but have not conceived the new one, yet. That’s when you doubt yourself and whether or not you can do it again. But the writing when it’s flowing? I wish I could bottle it up and sell it.

What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?

It’s always difficult until you know the answers. For instance, I didn’t know how the father was going to contribute to the story for a long time. I remember taking myself on a weekend writing retreat and I was walking about Lake Dillon and beating my head against the block—who’s the father? What’s his story? Should I get rid of him entirely? I think if you stay present and don’t give up, and you are okay writing a bunch of mediocre stuff that you might end up cutting, then the right answers will always reveal themselves in time. That’s the hardest part of being a writer (or any artist): trusting that the creative process will ebb and flow and trying not to freak out in between.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

Oh my, I learned so many interesting facts while working on this book! And the facts show up throughout—I included a few in this excerpt. I learned about The Bearded Woman and the Thin Man and leper colonies and the death of Harry Houdini. It’s incredible that the “Tattooed Man” and the “Long Haired Lady” used to be considered anomalies worth paying to look at, on one end, and then on the other end there are the more shameful episodes, like the “Missing Link” exhibit in the Bronx Zoo where tribal people were exhibited next to monkeys.

I guess in the end it’s all about exhibition, exhibitionism, and how we end up on various stages. Because we’re all on some sort of stage, chosen or not.

What project are you working on next?

Two projects, actually. I’ve just finished a non-fiction book on the craft of flash fiction, “Going Short,” that is with my agent now—I’m hopeful this one will find a home soon, as there are so many people interested in the exploding genre of flash fiction but few books (and almost none by women) that dive into the craft. 

And on that note, I’ve been teaching classes and workshops on flash fiction for over a decade (find out more at www.nancystohlman.com), but my latest endeavor (with partner Kathy Fish) has been leading international flash fiction writing retreats in inspiring places like Italy and Costa Rica and Grand Lake, Colorado! It’s amazingly rewarding: find out more about that at www.flashfictionretreats.com

The second writing project is a new flash novel, similar in format toMadam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities”: a big concept written in micro pieces and juxtaposed with lots of absurdist, dark humor. But I don’t want to say too much more yet as I don’t want to jinx it! But the working title is “After the Rapture.” I’m hoping to have a completed draft by the end of the summer—wish me luck!

— Buy “Madame Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities” at www.nancystohlman.com.
Excerpt: Madame Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities” by Nancy Stohlman.

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