Nancy Stohlman’s books include The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories (2014), The Monster Opera (2013), Searching for Suzi: a flash novel (2009), Live From Palestine (2003), and three anthologies of flash fiction 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 F-Bomb Flash Fiction Reading Series in Denver, a founding member of Fast Forward Press, and her work has been recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Loren Kleinman (LK): Talk about The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories. What’s your favorite story in the collection? Why?
Nancy Stohlman (NS): A mother loves all her children but The Vixen Scream is always going to be a favorite child. Many of the stories, including “Death Row Hugger”, “The Fox”, “Requiem for piano”, and “The Homunculus” came to me fully formed, either in dreams or in waking life.
As a professor, I have each of my classes free-write for 10 minutes each day. If I have four classes, that’s 40 minutes of writing for me. Often a story draft would begin and end in the span of one day, and after work I would type it up. This happened many, many times while writing Vixen. It was a very satisfying time to be writing.
But perhaps most satisfying was when “The Fox” revealed itself to be more than a single story. The book cracked open at that point for me and became much more than a collage of stories. Incidentally, I have not seen a fox since I published that book. It’s like the saga ended for real.
LK: Discuss the Bible influence in The Vixen Scream.
NS: I was raised Catholic, including Catholic school for some years. So those stories are very familiar to me, and, like many beloved fairytales, many of them are also incredibly disturbing.
While working on the bizarre stories in Vixen, I noticed that those Bible stories were actually quite similar. Put side by side they started to compliment and inform one another. In one story a woman turns into a piano; in another story a woman turns into a pillar of salt. In one story a boyfriend lives in a tree, in another a man gets swallowed by a whale. I particularly liked how the Fox was able to make a cameo in “The Flood”.
Bible stories are some of the most clever allegories in our western cultural mythology. Some people think my Bible stories are meant to mock. They’re actually not. I felt compassion towards and wanted to humanize these characters and the bizarre situations they find themselves in. How does Lazarus feel about being raised from the dead? How does a man prepare to sacrifice his child? One of my favorite compliments was when a friend who is a minister used my story, “The Annunciation”, as part of his Christmas season sermon.
LK: What’s flash fiction and what writers should we check out?
NS: Flash fictions are tiny, complete stories under 1,000 words. And flash fiction is always telling a story, even if much of that story is implied.
While flash fiction is the most widely used term, and 1,000 words the most widely accepted word limit, there are other names: sudden fiction, nanofiction. Recently microfiction has become a subgenre for stories under 300-ish words, and there are journals and books that specialize in stories that are just 50 words, 100 words... even one sentence.
Obviously I would check out the seminal anthologies of James Thomas, Robert Shapard, and Tom Hazuka, who have been leaders in collecting and curating flashes written both before and after the moniker “flash fiction” was christened. I love journals like Blink Ink, Boston Literary Magazine, Flash Frontier, Metazen, Cease, Cows, The Airgonaut, 100-Word story, Vestal Review, Literary Orphans, and Connotation Press. Last year Bartleby Snopes hosted a “Women Who Flash Their Lit” forum, where I was invited into conversation with many of the great female flash fiction writers working today. You can check out the archives here.
The University of Chester in the UK has an incredibly comprehensive list of flash presses, books, anthologies and scholarly writings.
Some of my favorite individual flash writers include Meg Tuite, Kathy Fish, Robert Scotellaro, Len Kuntz, Robert Vaughan, Pamela Painter, Selah Saterstrom, Paul Beckman, Christopher Allen, and Teresa Milbrodt. But the flash fiction movement is a little like the Roman Empire—every morning I wake up and the territory has expanded. People are converting faster than I can keep up.
LK: What pisses you off about the writing scene today?
NS: I think we’ve lost many of our gatekeepers. Writers used to have to work very hard to become good enough for publication. Those works would then have to pass through additional gatekeepers before they were released to the public. You’d really have to go “through the fire” as a writer. But that fire and that process was part of the alchemy that made great writers out of good writers.
The ease of self-publishing coupled with the difficulty of breaking into the major houses has taken away the gatekeepers and the fire. Now a writer can publish a book without ever getting a single rejection. Publication has a price tag rather than being a meritocracy. Now that doesn’t mean that big publishers don’t publish bad books and that good work isn’t self-published. It just means that there are too many books out there that aren’t ready.
Most writers don’t like to hear that they will need to write a few “practice books” if they want to get really good; I personally have three practice books, and it’s a mercy that I was too poor to even consider self-publishing at that time, because I can understand the temptation to just get it out there. I see now that it was a blessing I had no other choice than to go through the fire. While it might be painful to hear that our book is not ready and needs more work, it can ultimately be the best thing that ever happens to us. Getting that rejection forces us back to the page, back to our work, again and again.
The Vixen Scream was published by Pure Slush Press, a small publisher out of Australia. I think small and mid-level presses are the future. Small press editors are truly the unsung heroes, still doing it for the love of books. Their decisions don’t have to be dictated by profits, but they also provide those essential gatekeepers, someone with “skin in the game”.
After 15 years I landed an agent last year. She is currently shopping my new manuscript, Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities, to mid-level publishers that have been out of my reach so far. But that means I will be getting lots of rejections again. And if you aren’t getting rejections then you aren’t in the game. If everything you submit gets accepted, it’s time to take bigger risks.
LK: What inspires you?
NS: Watching writers go through that fire and get better. Watching their work break open. Watching them get dirty. Every morning I have a social media feed full of writers who are publishing stories, winning contests, being featured at readings, getting nominated for awards, and getting their books accepted by agents and publishers. Not to mention that nearly every morning I see a story published that I helped the writer edit and shape. It’s very satisfying for me to see those successes.
I like it when writers are rooting for one another, sharing in each other’s celebrations. I think the best way to promote yourself is by promoting others, and in the flash fiction world there is a lot of generosity in that way. Success for one is success for all. One day we’ll all look back at flash as a defining movement of literature and say: “We did that.”
LK: Why should readers care about flash fiction?
NS: Just as the Impressionists changed painting, or rock ‘n’ roll changed music, flash fiction is changing literature. Readers have discovered something delightful and poignant in these little spaces. Every sentence, every word takes on a new significance if only for the limited number of them. And the stories, far from trivial or lazy, have their finger on a new and necessary kind of urgency.
Future writers will point to this moment as a crucial pivot. Flash fiction is creating a brand new lens through which to write, changing how we tell stories. Writers are cultivating a new set of skills and writing a different kind of story. It’s inspiring for me to be on the front lines of such a movement, throwing rocks that will ripple into the future of literature.