I grew up as a military brat, so I lived everywhere: D.C., Arizona, Kansas, Germany, Spain, Nebraska, and then a stint traveling with the Renaissance Festival before settling in Denver and getting serious about writing.
Tell us about your book? How did it get started?
I’ve been writing flash fiction (stories under 1,000 words) almost exclusively for the last 10 years, and have been championing the form for as long. So this book started like a mosaic–once I find myself with a deluge of stories I start collecting them together and seeing if the pieces are talking to each other. For what became Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities there was a lot of synergy happening, and I realized I’d been writing about performers and various aspects of identity (the narrator’s reflection is her own character, for instance.) Once I found the mortar between the pieces it was easy to create a cabaret on the pages.
How do you create your characters?
I don’t really create characters—I wait for them to show up and then I listen to them once they do. As a beginning writer I would try to “invent” characters, but they were always just composites of real people or they were idealized in one way or another (and therefore boring and cliche). Caricatures. Now I wait for characters to show up and I almost act as a journalist—letting them pull me around on their adventures while I take notes.
What inspires and what got you started in writing?
I’ve been writing since I was nine years old—I wrote my first screenplay—“Superman, The Musical”, on my mom’s electric typewriter and felt so important sitting there “writing.”
Now with my busy teaching schedule and all the behind the scenes things that come with publishing I find I have to actively guard my “timeless time” for writing. Once I have an idea I can write anywhere—much of my writing these days happens in the in-between spaces—while I’m commuting on the train, for instance (which is why I don’t drive). But the deep, original inspiration always comes from the timeless time—the space I allow for creative play with no expectation around the outcome. Consequently, I get a lot of my best ideas while walking or sleeping or cooking or doing something else.
Where do you write? Is there something you need in order to write (music, drinks?)
It will sound unglamourous, but I write in bed, in silence, with maybe tea or coffee that has gotten cold. I think I need my feet off the ground in order to access my imagination. I have an office, and it has all the things an office should have—desk, file cabinets, bookshelves, pictures of writing heroes and other memorabilia—and I worked very hard to be able to have an office and I love my office. I have pictures of all my book covers hanging up in there. And I pay bills in there and I answer emails in there, but I don’t write in there.
How do you get your ideas for writing?
Oh the world is full of ideas—it’s about paying attention and writing ideas down when they come, and this is also why you should always have a notebook with you, even a tiny one. That said, I’ve spent a lot of time cultivating my dream life—I keep a notebook by the bed as well and treat my dream material as fertile. The other places I get inspired are pop culture outlets like Wikipedia—I can spend hours going down research rabbit holes, and I find this idea of a collaborative content community fascinating. Thousands of people who never see each other all working to create one artifact. It’s wild.
What do you like to read?
I read a lot of novels. I tend to read before bed and I’ve found that I can’t read flash fiction before bed because it riles me up. Favorite books are all over the place, from 1984 to Handmaid’s Tale to Lolita and the Virgin Suicides for lyricism and Hemingway for everything—For Whom the Bell Tolls is one of my favorite books. I’ve recently been getting into Japanese writers and a favorite novel I read last year was Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe. I tend to like the beautiful and weird.
And yes, I read a lot of flash fiction, much of it from my colleagues and the thriving flash community, but I have to be careful about reading too much flash fiction because I am also writing it. I also try to reread every year—revisit a favorite book with wiser eyes. Not having to pay attention to plot frees me up to pay attention to other things. Every serious writer should reread several books each year. And finally I try to read several craft books about writing every year—they are often rereads at this point.
What would your advice to be for authors or aspiring authors in regards to writing?
My biggest piece of advice is to be patient, which is hard. Be patient and allow your ideas to unfold—don’t worry if your mind goes blank one day—it will be better the next, or the next after that. Just keep showing up and don’t panic—there are few things I trust more than the creative process. There are good writing days and bad, good writing years and bad, but it will always return.
And don’t be in a rush around publication, because once it‘s out there it’s out there. I’ve seen a lot of things published before they were really ready because the author is so excited, and since they are excited they want to share it and have someone to read it. Understandable. But the internet has allowed more noise than ever—you don’t even have to wait, you can publish anytime—so there is a rush to publish things before they are really ready. So take your time and when your work is ready you will know.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Yes—for interested people I do all sorts of workshops and even private editing and coaching. I’ve also co-founded a new endeavor, Flash Fiction Retreats, (www.flashfictionretreats.com) with flash fiction writer Kathy Fish. In it we are creating time for writers to rest, write, get instruction, camaraderie and some timeless time in inspiring locations. We just held our first retreat in Colorado and we have others planned in Costa Rica and Italy in 2019.
And in November I’ll be running the 7th Annual FlashNano—we write 30 flash stories in 30 days in solidarity with NaNoWriMo. Get on my mailing list if you want more info about this or any of the other things I’ve mentioned: (www.nancystohlman.com)
Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities is available in October and if you are near Denver I’ll be teaming up with composer Nick Busheff to do a musical performance of the book on Oct 26, 2018—I’d love to sign a copy for you in person!
Thanks so much for having me here!