Nancy Stohlman can do it all. She can create new genres of literature, write operas and teach you how to do both. Someday she hopes to become a pirate, but in the meantime her new flash novel The Monster Opera will be transformed into an opera on Friday, October 4 at the Mercury Cafe. In the novel, a writer travels to Mexico to find inspiration to write -- but there are monsters everywhere waiting for her. It turns into a "gothic literary noir, a genre-bending novel-meets-libretto that combines recitative with dialogue, aria with prose, and ultimately asks the question: Who owns a story?," explains Stohlman. In advance of the opera's debut, we talked with her about being a revolutionary in her craft, some childhood memories and finding the confidence to produce authentic work.
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Westword: I noticed you say you coined the term "flash novel." Can you explain what a flash novel entails, and how you came up with it?
Nancy Stohlman: I first coined the term in 2008 for my master's thesis at Naropa University. At that time I'd already written three traditional novels, but my new work was hijacking me -- it was trying to escape the constraints of a traditional novel. None of the terminology, including "novel" or "novella," really described what I was trying to write: a sparse, lean book that behaves and resonates as if it were much longer with the scope of a novel.
When our art begins to change, our language needs to change, too. So I basically invented the term as a way to give my work permission to misbehave and to give legitimacy to a new type of storytelling.
Are there other flash novelists, or are you the sole front of the movement? Did you feel like a revolutionary when you put the term on the cover of your first book, Searching for Suzi?
I absolutely felt like a revolutionary! I remember the conversation with Searching for Suzi publisher Nate Jordan. I said, "When people start tracing the term, I want them to trace it all the way back to here." So we put it on the cover. It was awesome.
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But in terms of being the sole flash novelist, no. There are many writers whose work has also been pushing these same boundaries; their work is being labeled anything from a novel to a novella to a collection. So many amazing new works defy the old definitions; if the writers are like me, then you finish and you sort of look at it and say, well, great. Where will Barnes and Noble shelve this? Miscellaneous?
But I'm excited that the term "flash novel" is starting to catch on. Writer magazine featured an article about the flash novel, "All Meat and No Fat," in 2010, and Bartleby Snopes Press, which published The Monster Opera, has even begun a flash novel series.
The Monster Opera took a few years to complete and get staged, and you said you thought it was just "too weird." How did you finally overcome that barrier and realize its true potential?
In this case, it wasn't about me overcoming, it was about me waiting. I believe the job of any artist is to point audiences into thickets that may at first seem intimidating. Which means that naturally, at first, there will be resistance. In fact, if there isn't at least a little resistance, than perhaps there isn't enough at stake. I like my art raw, vulnerable, 100 percent true to the authenticity of the vision. So rather than try to make my work more widely accessible to speed up the process, I just had to wait.
Funny story: The same morning I got the acceptance from Bartleby Snopes, I was in the process of abandoning The Monster Opera. I had decided that it was too weird for public consumption and I should move on. Within hours of "letting it go," I opened my e-mail to find an acceptance.
I heard Gertrude Stein was a real inspiration for you. Do you feel that reading her Four Saints in Three Acts gave you permission, or made it easier, to produce The Monster Opera?
If I hadn't, quite by accident, discovered Gertrude Stein's libretto on one of my adventures through the Denver library stacks, I probably would never have written this book. It was one of those aha! moments when smoke clears and little birdies start singing: All at once it became possible in my mind for an opera libretto to become a piece of literature. Certainly there have been works of literature that have been turned into opera. But I wanted to go the other way around -- I wanted to write a libretto that behaved like literature. I wrote The Monster Opera as a book before any music was put to it.
You're also involved in hosting many writers workshops; what do you have coming up for those? Does helping others with their writing help your own writing?
Absolutely. Over the summer I taught an intensive workshop for writers to finish their manuscripts and take the next steps launching them into the world. (I'll probably give that one again in January.) I'm currently working with several private clients and I've just started individualized coaching sessions focused on book launching and self-promotion. The best part about working with other writers, especially other talented writers, is you will always be learning from the process; it's especially wonderful to bear witness to another writer's breakthrough, then turn back to your own work with your own breakthroughs simmering...
Nick Busheff composed the music for The Monster Opera. You work with him in your metal/ lounge band Kinky Mink. Did it help to use someone whose musical styling's you were so familiar with? Were you two really on the same page with this project?
Nick Busheff is a brilliant musician and composer, and this production would never have happened without him. And yes, there is absolutely something magical that happens in a collaboration between artists who are really in tune with one another's vision. I've done lots of successful collaborations, but it's rare to find another artist who can hear the music in your head before you've even heard it yourself. I believe this is Nick's finest work to date.
With this project finished, how close are you now to your dream of becoming a pirate?
I'm always practicing my looting and pillaging skills. I actually just stole your wallet. Why do you still have a Blockbuster card?
You said when you were nine you wrote a screenplay called Superman: The Musical. Any chance of adapting that into a flash piece for the stage? Sounds really fun.
Ha! I think the Lex Luthor/Lois Lane duet will have to be rethought. Gosh, that was really when I became a writer, I think. I remember typing it day after day on my mother's electric typewriter, loving the sound of the keys hitting and how important I felt sitting there, creating something where there was nothing before. Perhaps it's time to resurrect the paper mache volcano...
Anything else you would like to add for the readers out there? Promotions/shout- outs?
Definitely shout-outs to my awesome cast: Marta Burton, Erik Wilkins, Jonathan Montgomery, Dee Galloway, Toby Smith, Scott Ryplewski, Mayra Walters, Van Yoho and Kinky Mink drummer Rory Reagan. And a huge thank you to Marilyn Megenity at the Mercury Café for being a rock of support, not only to me but to the artistic community in Denver for so many years.
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Stohlman will debutingThe Monster Opera on Friday, October 4 at the Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street; the show starts at 8 p.m. and Stohlman will have a book-signing after the show. Tickets are available here.