Welcome to the Monster Opera: Chatting with Nancy Stohlman About Relationships, Writing, and Flashing4
April 22, 2013 by Nathaniel Tower
A few months ago, Bartleby Snopes Press announced its call for Flash Novels. This was an idea that had been brewing in my mind for a couple years, but I wasn’t quite sure how to do it. When the idea for Flash Novels just wouldn’t go away, I decided it was time to go for it. Similar to last year’s shortlisted Post-Experimental issue, I knew it would work its way into something real.
So far, we’ve accepted three Flash Novels, all of which we’re excited to publish. Perhaps the quirkiest, and maybe the most important, is Monster Opera by Nancy Stohlman. Unbeknownst to me at our original launch for submissions, Nancy Stohlman had actually already invented the term “Flash Novel” and published one of her own.
Nancy, it’s an honor to chat with you today. As Managing Editor of Bartleby Snopes, I must say that I am extremely excited about publishing Monster Opera as one of our first flash novels this summer/fall. Let’s get down to business.
First, tell us about yourself as a writer. Don’t forget to include the details of the grand revelation occurred that made you become a writer (we all have one, right?).
Thanks, Nate! I’m so thrilled for this collaboration with Bartleby Snopes!
Well my grand revelation was more of a slow seeping…I came of age in the library. We were a military family, we moved every few years, so my connections with others were always fleeting. When I was learning to read I lived in Europe: West Germany, Spain. No internet. No American television. Long distance calls were expensive and rare. The library became my connection to the States, and then eventually to the world. I was volunteering at the library by the time I was 9, reading Nancy Drew and stamping people’s books.
So I guess I’ve always known. At nine years old I wrote a screenplay called Superman: The Musical.
The word “flash” always seems to pop up wherever I see your name. You work with the Flashbomb Reading Series, you run the website Ask a Flash Fiction Editor, and now you have this Flash Novel coming out. What’s with you and flashing?
I’m cracking up—maybe I’m just a literary exhibitionist! “Flash” is the safety word.
So my work has never fallen neatly into categories. This used to be extremely frustrating—I spent many years and several practice novels trying to make it behave. Finally in grad school a professor suggested I get a bit more ragged around the edges. I guess I just needed permission. But I think that can be said for genre as well—Flash is roughing them all up, calling them out. I believe we’re witnessing an artistic movement that’s creating an entirely new kind of writing. So for me the word flash means freedom—a true surrender into art.
Monster Opera isn’t your first Flash Novel. In fact, it seems you coined the term “flash novel” (although I hadn’t actually read any of your work when I decided to make up the term myself a couple years later). What inspired the flash novel?
I coined the term in 2008 for my Master’s thesis, The Flash Manifesto, at about the same time that I was finishing Searching for Suzi. Suzi was the first novel where I gave myself permission to stop writing a novel. At the time Wikipedia wouldn’t let me create a page for “flash novels” (they said you couldn’t create a page for a term), so when the book came I insisted that we put “flash novel” on the cover, even though it felt sort of silly at the time. “Flash novel? You mean novella?” everyone asked.
No. See, we’re writers, we know the power of naming. I know very few writers aiming to write a novella, and I find this problematic, because there are many, many, many stories that don’t require 60,000 words. A lot of stories would be smothered in 60,000 words. But novelists continue writing novels with parameters set by big publishing, which is really the antithesis of the creative process. The story takes as long as the story takes.
So does that mean that flash novels are novellas with a makeover? No. Shakespeare knew it, Orwell knew it: thought follows language. We create a word, we create a possibility. We write things into being. Language creates meaning where there wasn’t meaning before. The flash novel is becoming, right now.
In one sentence, what makes a good flash novel?
A flash novel is an exquisitely sliced novel.
Tell us about Monster Opera. It’s been around for a while, hasn’t it?
Okay, so I have to confess that the same morning I got Bartleby Snopes’ email, I was in the process of breaking up with it again: “Look, you’re just too weird, I don’t think we can make this work.” It’s probably the most audacious thing I’ve ever written, and I doubted myself a lot in the process. Readers had only two reactions: dazed/awe, or complete confusion. So I had to really trust my vision, even when it didn’t make sense to me.
About two years ago I decided to do a staged reading (still unfinished then) with composer Nick Busheff and a small cast of opera singers and actors. We performed in an antique warehouse to a full house of people who all left with the “Monster Opera” daze on their faces—I actually overheard someone say, “I have to go home and think about what just happened.” All the enthusiasm gave me the confidence I needed to finish it. And though it lends itself to performance, I firstly see it as a written work.
Where did you come up with the idea for this cross-genre masterpiece?
Blushing. I was already a lover of opera and classical music, but then I discovered Gertrude Stein’s libretto Four Saints in Three Acts. For those of you who don’t know, composers usually hire a librettist to write the words to their music. When I discovered Stein’s libretto (in the library!), I was stunned. It was both pure opera and pure Stein. It was an amazing piece of writing.
Susan Sontag says the novel and opera are the two most antiquated artistic forms, not having evolved through the stages of modernism, post modernism, etc., that have shaped the other arts. Being a lover of both, I saw how these two forms were fighting for their own relevancy…and I wondered what would happen if I let them fight it out on the page?
You describe yourself as a promotional fiend. What are your promotional methods? What have you found that works and what doesn’t?
Ha! Yes, it’s a necessary evil, and one that I don’t think writers take seriously. People tell me, “You’re so good at it!” But my promotional methods are about 85% naïve audacity. I think my greatest strength is that I’m not afraid to fail—I’d rather fail than not try. When I hear (every!) writer say, “I’m not good at the promotional part,” I want to say, “Neither am I, I just show up and do it anyway!”
If we don’t use the same passion to put our work into the world, then we’re ultimately birthing it and abandoning it. And I’ve learned collaboration is crucial: None of us have to do this alone. That’s why I started the F-Bomb reading series—I wanted a place where I could put other people in the spotlight and say: Look! Look at yourself. See….own it. You are awesome.
What are your ultimate goals as a writer?
To write, full time, and make my living that way. I’m pretty sure if I were given the gift of time I might take myself into realms of creation that are still inaccessible to me right now. Ultimately I envision a world where artists are acknowledged as visionaries and paid accordingly.
Fill in the blanks: If Monster Opera doesn’t__________________then I will _____________________________________.
If the Monster Opera doesn’t leave you 100% satisfied, then I will personally come to your house with a bottle of wine and a VHS copy of Fatal Attraction, and you can explain your grievance in great detail.
Which of the following is most closely associated with Monster Opera (and why):
The Phantom of the Opera
The Phantom of the Opera, but unlike Phantom there’s a self-awareness—not unlike a Shakespeare comedy—of being inside of one’s one melodrama. It’s funny and tragic and haunting all at once. But Miss Piggy might make a fantastic Magdelena.
What’s one piece of advice you have for any writer, seasoned or rookie?
Stop worrying about publication! And most importantly, cross-pollinate: go to museums, orchestras, operas, fashion shows, comedy shows, go to movies alone, cook, draw, dance, take photographs, take adventure walks, read random things off library shelves. Being an artist is a way of life.
Now it’s your turn. Ask me one question. It could be about anything. Make it count.
Okay (rubbing hands): Why did you choose to actively seek flash novels for publication?
Fantastic question. Part of it, like with our Post-Experimentalism issue, is to explore the possibilities of writing. We’ve seen the short story condense itself in recent years. Could the same thing happen to the novel?
Maybe it stems from my desire to be able to read more books. I never seem to have the time, and often when I read novels these days, I often find myself disappointed in the end. It seems like many authors rush to create some finality or twist or shock in order to bring the thing to a close. That’s obviously a blanket statement that doesn’t reflect every novel, or probably even half the novels written. But it seems to be a trend in modern novel writing. So let’s buck that trend. Why spend all this time developing a plot and characters, making a reader invest all this time, just to let us down at the end? As you said, let’s slice that novel into something we can read maybe in one sitting and still feel the fulfillment of a great novel. I think you make an important distinction in your responses. A flash novel is not a novel. It’s not a novella. It’s not a short story. It’s something else. Something new. Hopefully something grand. Whatever the case, it’s a new monster.