Interview: Nancy Stohlman
Nancy Stohlman’s Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities published in October, 2018 with Big Table Publishing. Kathy Fish writes of the collection: “The pieces are so inventive and daring, with a voice that leaps off the page. Nancy deals with deep truths in a way that bucks straight realism. As she puts it, she feels most comfortable telling her stories ‘slant.'”
This interview was conducted by CRAFT flash fiction section editor, Tommy Dean, via email. —CRAFT
Nancy Stohlman’s new book, Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities, is a dizzying array of flash and vignette stories that put the reader behind the scenes of vaudeville and freak show acts from the era of traveling circuses. If you’ve ever wanted to get inside the heads of the principal entertainers exhibited under the big top, here’s you chance! Stohlman is more than the ringmaster here; she is the trapeze artist twisting her narrative energies into triple flips, bringing this cast of oddball characters and performers into the soft light of dressing rooms and rolling train cars. —Tommy Dean
Tommy Dean: Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities starts with a first-person narrator, who even speaks to themselves in the mirror. Are you, the writer, in conversation with another small part of yourself?
Nancy Stohlman: It’s a great question. Consciously, no. Definitely no. But one thing I have noticed more and more about my writing the last few years is that I’m shying away from traditional “character”—this started in my last book, The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories, when the narrator’s love interest was a fox. I’ve been tending towards archetypes—the mother, the father, the ringmaster, etc., so I think “the reflection” in Madam Velvet is more along those lines—she is definitely her own character and not consciously a part of me any more than any other character is a part of the writer. Of course my therapist might say differently.
TD: I attended a session you were a part of at AWP 2017 entitled, “From Flash Fiction to Microfiction: How Many Words are Enough?,” where you told a story, then cut the story in half, and then cut it in half again. It was amazing to hear the story three times and witness the degree of cuts you were willing to make and how the story didn’t necessarily suffer from being condensed. How many of these stories in Madam Velvet started out much longer? Did most of them go through this condensing or cutting?
NS: Oh I’m so glad you remember that AWP panel, and thanks for your kind words. I have to give credit to Bruce Taylor and his story “Exercise” for the original idea—I used his story (and still use it) in many of my classes and workshops, but at AWP I figured I’d better take it up a notch and put my own work on the line and show that even a tiny story can become tinier. That story, “Death Row Hugger,” started at 238(-ish) words and went down to about sixty in the cutting.
In terms of my own process I don’t really have to cut a story in half anymore—the longer I write flash fiction the shorter they get. The stories in Madam Velvet are some of my shortest ever—at one point I was joking that if things kept going in this direction my stories were just going to disappear! Lately I’m getting longer (like 500 words!) again…
TD: How important is white space to your writing in general, but especially with these stories? I don’t think the narrator is being coy, necessarily, but I feel like the narrator has some autonomy over what’s being shared with the reader. It’s a comforting feeling, knowing that the voice is in control here, but it’s also off-kilter, right? How/why did you make those choices?
NS: Yes, the metaphoric white space as well as the real white space—both are important. I really try to say as little as possible and let innuendo, implication, and imagination fill in the rest. Those white spaces have to be really loaded. Again here, I’m not sure that I made that decision consciously, like, “this is the distance the narrator will be from the reader.” But as soon as I feel like I’m taking too long to get to the point, I ask: how much of this does the reader really need and how much is just to placate or amuse myself? In the end think it’s better to paint with a light brush. A few splotches of paint dabbed strategically can imply an entire scene that is rich in nuance and emotion. That doesn’t take away from the beauty of long work (and I love to read novels). But I prefer to write the lighter, airy touch that whispers and flirts.
TD: I really connected with the story, “My Mother was a Circus Clown,” I think in part because it gave me a different way of characterizing the narrator. This story gives the reader a glimpse of how the narrator’s mother refused regular parental intimacy by performing gags when the narrator just wanted a hug. How important are these outside views when working primarily with a first-person narrator? Did you purposely start with the first-person point of view? If so, could you talk about how you made that decision?
NS: Thank you! That was one of those pivot pieces: once that piece came then the whole clown mother thread started unfolding (the father came later). Again, I don’t think it’s a purposeful decision. But lately I find myself loathe to creating traditional “characters” with looks and backgrounds and even names! I think, for me, the first-person narrator accomplishes the same thing as the archetypal character. It’s a shortcut around all that description and backstory. Ironically, I feel like I get more emotional distance in a first-person point of view even though it might feel very intimate to the reader.
TD: What was your process of crafting this collection together? There’s seems to be a shift from the constant narrator around page twenty-one to twenty-two with the list of circus performers. Was this intentional? What effect were you hoping for?
NS: Oh yes, very intentional. And even more so in the work I’m doing now—I teach that there are many ways of approaching a collection. One way is to look at it like a “greatest hits” album of work in an order that is rhythmic and pleasing and that is perfectly alright. But I tend to go for the “concept album” approach instead, allowing the juxtapostions of story against story to create another layer of white space and give birth to a second layer of story. It’s my favorite part these days.
TD: This line from “Past Life Self” really caught my attention: “Oh, you’ll be dealing with this for years, she said knowingly.” I think it might speak to some of the major central conflicts in the book, especially for the main character. Does that resonate with you? If so, when did you know this might be one of the themes? Are there other themes that you had consciously picked out and tried to enhance as you were writing the book or picking which stories to include?
NS: I love that you pulled that out as a theme! I think that readers are often smarter than the writer. It’s like the writer is just hacking through the jungle with a machete, clearing a path. But the reader has a high perch and gets to watch all the hacking and see the big picture—I love when a reader pulls out cool themes or makes a great connection that I never intended or even ever considered! Love. It.
And in general I never really “pick” themes. I only grapple with whatever life is throwing at me at the time until I find the door into fiction for it. And all my work is absurd, so for me the door is always into the absurd. If you were to live with me or know me well you would see the little bits of “truth” gleaming out from all the madness. But you would have to know me well to find it.
TD: Your writing has a great sense of play! Are there other forms, such as the scam email from a rich prince, that you haven’t tried yet? Any forms or structures you’d shy away from? Your writing feels fearless; is there any topic or idea you’d refrain from writing about?
NS: You are so sweet to say that—I’m glad it comes off fearless because of course it always feels so risky on my end. And yes! Creating at its best IS play. When I’m in the zone, as I’m sure you can relate, it’s like my work is my best friend/lover/confidant/adventure partner and I can’t wait to get home to it. I like to say that I’m “dating” my Man-Uscript when I’m really deep in it.
Forms or structure I would shy away from? Hmmm, well I have to say that I love sentences and punctuation and paragraphs and everything about prose. So even though I can appreciate poetry and I do write it on occasion, I have never felt compelled to go down that path. I wrote a lot of poetry as a young writer, and I studied with some poets in graduate school just to make sure I wouldn’t get the poetry bug again, and, no. I love sentences. That said, my “lists” are probably disguised poems, but only on accident.
TD: “The Ferris Wheel” is an important story for the cycle of the book as it creates this shift, a schism in the narrator and her reflection who wants her own path, her own career. I love how you always write against convention, against what is expected. How do you come up with these ideas, these twists to create new stories, new mythos?
NS: Man, I wish I had an awesome answer to this question because I don’t really know! I do use a lot of dream material, and I love the absurd in art in general. I go to a lot of museums (alone on purpose), go to orchestras (alone on purpose), etc., and I see this as my “tilling” the field. But how does the story come? That’s the magical, elusive part.
For me it often happens that I start with a little tiny idea, like so tiny it’s not even really an idea, and then when I sit down to write I become this wild eager child just galloping—letting my writing even get wild and curlicue (I write first drafts by hand) and not stopping myself from going in any direction, no matter how bizarre. I would say ninety percent of my stories spring out of this ether of writing fast and having fun—I never really know what is going to happen. So I might get an idea like, “I should write a story set on the top of a Ferris Wheel,” and then I will write “The Ferris Wheel” on the top of the page, and then I just start writing and watch what happens. Sometimes it fails, but most of the time at least something interesting happens.
TD: There are few sections where lists take over the narrative. I’m wondering if you would consider them self-sufficient stories? Or are they more important to link other sections together?
NS: Well I definitely use them as both. Many of my lists come from the crazy sh*t I find in the world—there is no better source of absurdist material than the real actual world! It’s a nutcase out there! With a list I can just lay these things out for a reader, letting juxtaposition and repetition do all the work: “Look at this! Isn’t this weird?” without going into a bunch of my own commentary. For instance, In Madam Velvet I have a list of actual sideshow performers, a list I curated after reading A LOT about vintage circus and vaudeville performers. Rather than trying to be true to or regurgitate everything I wanted to say, which could have filled volumes, I just let their names, like Jo-Jo the Dogfaced Boy, or The Long-Haired Lady, evoke their stories.
Lists are amazing and one of my favorite forms in writing and in life. I have a list of things I want to do before I die (I started it years before The Bucket List movie so I refuse to call it a bucket list) that I’ve been adding to and amending and checking things off on for over twenty years—I think when I die that list will be my final piece of writing.
TD: How much research did you do for this book? How important is verisimilitude? It seems many writers are drawn to parts of society or entertainment that no longer exist. Is there a particular reason you’re drawn to the circus or circus performers?
NS: The real truth is never as important to me as the Emotional Truth. But I find the real truth fascinating. I only do as much research as holds my interest. So my work should never be considered “true,” but there is quite a bit of truth in it. Often my stories might be an amalgamation of multiple people or events rather than the “real” story of one person, but that doesn’t make it any less True with the big T.
I’ve been trying to write about circus life for a long time; I spent about five years in my early twenties living, working, and traveling with the Renaissance Festival, so it’s material that has been simmering in me for a long time. The carnival society lives and works and breathes alongside the society that we know, a sort of doppelgänger society. It’s taken me a long time to find the “door” into that material.
TD: “The Augmentation,” a story about generations of women getting breast implants, feels like an added note, not out of place, but meant to draw the readers’/listeners’ attention. There’s an added amount of social commentary here, I think. Should fiction point out the irony of our world? Should it impart a lesson? Should it do more than just entertain?
NS: Interesting that you point that piece out because I almost didn’t include it for that reason. Should fiction do anything? No. I don’t think art has a responsibility to do anything but show us the world through another window. I think imposing expectations on art gets us into tricky territory. For instance, a lot of people don’t know that from the 1930s until the end of the 1960s there were moral “rules” imposed on Hollywood, what they could and couldn’t show in order to uphold some bs standards of morality and such. That’s why we had so many decades of Fred Astaire-type big musical movies and why Rick and Ilsa couldn’t kiss for more than three seconds in Casablanca. So no, I don’t think art of any sort SHOULD do anything. And when a writer sits down to “teach a lesson” it’s usually transparent and feels contrived no matter how one tries to make it seem natural.
TD: A lot of the stories play with the idea of dark comedy—jokes or situations we might feel a bit uncomfortable laughing about, or taking pleasure in reading. I’m thinking of this line, “…hey, who doesn’t want to say they’ve gotten a hand job from Helen Keller?” Is comedy or humor harder to pull off in written form? If so, why? Do you think more stories would benefit from a dash of comedy?
NS: Yes! But, like the “lesson” idea above, I think any story that comes with an agenda will be exposed for its shortcomings. And that agenda could also be: “be funny.” If I sit down to write a funny story, it’s for sure it won’t be. If I sit down to impart moral wisdom, forget it. I think the writer really has to get out of their own way and let the stories that want to come out, come out.
But would more stories benefit from comedy? I don’t know. I do know that when done well, comedy can be just as devastating as the most tragic story. But does comedy get the same respect as drama? Look at the best picture nominations. They are almost never funny. We think serious is “important.” But I think humor is incredibly important and can maybe get at things at a slant that you could not address straight on.
TD: What parts of our current society will eventually fade to the record books? Is there some piece of entertainment or politics that people a hundred years from now will think is strange, ignorant, or cruel?
NS: That’s a great question. Before I answer let me remind readers that the circus had a particular place in our society—especially in the late 1800s when the circus was really in its heyday, towns in the US were far apart (no cars) and regular people didn’t encounter many outsiders. There was also no television, no internet, no radio… and no electricity. Many people’s first experience of electricity was inside the big top of a traveling circus! Imagine the magic of seeing lights go on in the dark for the first time. Regular people were seeing exotic things, including animals, they had never seen before. It was mind-blowing.
In a way the circus was the reality television of the late 1800s. But the voyeur impulse and the attraction to the shocking and even grotesque is still very much alive, we just express it much differently now. What might be seen as too strange or bizarre in the future? Well, one hundred years from now everything is going to seem weird, frankly. Especially once we realize soda has been killing us all this time…
TD: I wonder if you could talk a bit about your influences for your writing? Whose stories/art helped you to become the writer you are now?
NS: It might sound cliché but Hemingway was a huge influence for me, particularly his pared down, right-to-the-point style. I loved discovering the work of Selah Saterstrom, who was a mentor for me and inspired me in my transition from the long-form to the short. And I love the lyrical writers, García Márquez and Nabokov’s Lolita and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. For plot I love George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Two absurdist books I discovered recently that I love are The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe and Blindness by José Saramago. And of course all the flash fiction I have read over the last decade or more. My time as an editor for Fast Forward Press (2007-2013) was also crucial in my own flash fiction process—reading thousands of stories helps you get pretty clear about your own style and what works and doesn’t work.
TD: What are you working on now? Are you intrigued by longer-form stories? Do you feel the need to write novels? Have you found your perfect form in the micro/flash? Is it insulting to ask a flash/micro writer about long-form writing?
NS: I don’t see myself writing a traditional novel any time soon—I was writing novels in my twenties and for the last ten years my work has gotten shorter and shorter and this is where I feel a lot more comfortable. BUT I love reading novels, and I love the bigger concepts and ideas that novels can address, so yes, I see myself doing more of a blend of the two—combining flash pieces into the mosaic of bigger story arcs, just as I did with Madam Velvet. I’m actually working on a manuscript right now that is doing that even more deliberately. I don’t want to jinx it so I won’t say more now about that… but stay tuned!