Nancy Stohlman on the Fundamentals of Flash: Make It Weird

As the title implies, Nancy Stohlman's The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories is a weird-ass book. Aside from including copious fun facts about foxes and the story of a man whose wife is turning into a piano, it's also presented in a format that, while still unusual, is gaining literary ground: flash fiction, an ultra-compressed form of storytelling that executes a plot in fewer than a thousand words.

Stohlman is a true flash acolyte, so much so that she's throwing a festival for the form: The FBomb National Flash Fiction Festival, an outgrowth of the flash series she helms once a month, which starts at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 21, at the Mercury Cafe. In advance of that effin' awesome event, we caught up with Stohlman to chat about implication, miniaturization and keeping it weird.

Westword: What is flash fiction?

Nancy Stohlman:  The technical answer is that flash fictions are complete stories told in a thousand words or less — complete stories meaning there's a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s different than a prose poem or a vignette or a scene or a sketch — which are very lovely, perhaps — but in flash fiction you get a complete story, something that happens in this small moment that changes things somehow. We don't give a lot of backstory or explain very much. A lot of what we do in flash fiction is implication, leaving a lot of information out and asking the reader to fill in some of those blanks. It's a form that asks the reader to be more engaged and more active, or encourages a participator kind of reading. So it’s really fun as a writer to write it and leave those gaps, and it’s fun for a reader to connect those dots.

How did you get started writing it?

It was sort of an evolution for me. I started writing traditional novels with traditional lengths and chapters that looked very traditional, because that’s what I had read and that's what I loved. I wrote a couple of those and I just found that there was something missing for me. It was becoming exhausting, like I was taking thre hours to say what I could say in ten seconds. I was boring myself.

So I was really stuck in this novel, and I started reading and writing a lot of flash fiction, and it was like, "Wait a minute — this is way more interesting." It was kind of a whole new concept. I started rethinking how I write, and looking at all these different writers who were playing with the idea of the micro-story. I like to compare it to miniature art in general, like a diorama or a bonsai tree. There’s something really intriguing about a whole world on a miniature scale. I have a hard time going back, because I love this miniature world.

If I want to get into flash, what should I be reading?

A lot of the flash fiction that’s really amazing right now is being written by people who are living, so it's not like we have this huge canon to draw on. Kathy Fish is wonderful, and she’s actually a Colorado writer, and she’s really one of the pioneers of flash fiction. She’ll actually be at our event on Tuesday.

There’s a lot of anthologies. I just reviewed one called Flash Fiction International by James Thomas and Robert Shapard – these guys have edited a lot of anthologies that Norton’s putting out – so there’s a bunch of these that will give you kind of an array. Paul Beckman, Robert Vaughan, Karen Stefano — all three of them are people who I would say are on the frontier of flash fiction, and they all have collections that have come out in the past year, and they'll all be at the event. I think the best we have is a woman named Lydia Davis — I would call her stuff "flash fiction and some other things." She's a writer I've looked toward in terms of pushing boundaries and exploding open how to tell a story. And then there's my collection, of course.

Yeah, tell me about writing that.

It was a joy to write. It’s a collection, so all the stories stand alone, but what I like to do and what I continue to do is I like to play a lot with the threading of those stories – how I set them next to each other, or how a thread goes all the way through. One thread is a romance between a woman and a fox that keeps coming up. The other threads that go through the book are these Bible stories – they’re based on the Bible, but my writing is very absurd, and I draw on the surrealistic tradition, so I’m writing about foxes and weird things, and the Bible is weird. So it sort of just fit right in. I don’t really manipulate the stories so much as tell them in my own way and lay them out there like, "Isn’t this weird?" Another thing I ended up doing was, as I was looking at foxes, I ended up researching them and gathered all this weird scientific information. There's also a story about a man who's in love with a woman who's turning into a piano. So a lot of times it’s me inventing absurdity, but a lot of the time it’s just recognizing absurdity, or it's weird on the surface, but underneath there's this common emotion of loss. I like to use the absurd world to talk about the universal.

The FBomb National Flash Fiction Festival comes to the Mercury Cafe on Tuesday, July 22. Find out more here.

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