Nancy Stohlman Interviewed at New Flash Fiction Review

Meg Pokrass recently interviewed Nancy at New Flash Fiction Review regarding her two stories in the New Micro anthology, her terrific, soon-to-be released book, Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities, our flash fiction retreats, and more.

Below is an excerpt:

MP: Congratulations on your new collection, MADAM VELVET’S CABARET OF ODDITIES! Can you tell us why the world of circus life, the world of clowns, and side-show oddities and performers became your focus?

NS: Thank you! And so many ways to answer this question! So, I’ve been on stage since I was very little in one way or another. Actually my very first memory is of being wheeled around the Barnum and Bailey circus ring (with some other kids picked from the audience) by clowns. I remember the feeling of spotlights so bright I couldn’t see my parents in the audience at all, and I remember the clowns talking to each other like regular people and it occurred to me that they were regular people. Then when I was about 10 my mother actually became a clown (she was nothing like the clown in the book) and used to recruit us to come “clown” with her: at the retirement community, at the town picnics and parades and such. I loved recognizing my friends from school and realizing they had no idea who I was when I was in clown makeup.

But maybe the biggest impetus to write this book was the years I spent traveling with the Renaissance Festival. It was a weird and wonderful American pastoral time—I was in my early 20s, I lived in a van and traveled all over the country, city to city—I’ve been to 47 states. And I’ve tried to write about those years many times—I wrote a bad (unpublished) novel called American Gypsy years ago. But as I said earlier, I have an aversion to telling a story straight—I have to come at it slant. And considering the reality of this/that life is pretty crazy to begin with, it took me a long time to find the right back door into the material.

You can read the rest of the interview HERE.


After 60 Years I Realized I’m a Writer: Getting Candid with Laura Alexander


Kathy Fish and I are thrilled that Laura Alexander will be joining us in Costa Rica this January for some rest, writing, and creative play. I chatted with her about flash fiction and becoming a writer later in life.

Nancy Stohlman: The biggest challenge most writers have is finding the time to write. Tell us about your writing process: How do you “retreat” in your day-to-day life in order to honor your creativity?  

Laura Alexander: For me it’s always about discipline.  I am not very good at self discipline.  So, I have set aside two full days a week that I devote to writing.  I have to physically leave the house because I am so easily distracted.  One of the things I have  found is that when I am out and about I am always writing in my head.  I will see an interesting person or scene and start to describe it in my mind as I would if I were writing.  This gives me a chance to practice seeing things from a different perspective and using new vocabulary.  I also do a lot of self care now that I have time for that because I believe it is difficult to be creative if I’m not taking care of myself. I go for long hikes, paddle on the Bay, eat well, read a lot and every morning I write what Julia Cameron calls “morning pages” to just empty my brain.

Nancy: Yes, I’m a big fan of morning pages. You shared with me that you are just beginning your writing career at age 61–that’s amazing! What has been your life until now and what brought you to this decision?  

Laura: I have been a nurse for nearly 40 years and although I love my work as a nurse, I have always been a writer at heart.  I started a journal when I was fifteen when I had my first kiss and have been journaling ever since.  I have always loved writing letters and even with the ease of email I still hand write long, newsy snail mail letters to friends and family.  When I was going through challenging times in my life I experimented with writing poetry.   After 60 years I finally realized that I am a writer.  I recently went down to working three days a week instead of five so that I would have more time to devote to my writing.  This is my first foray into fiction.

Nancy: Tell us about your relationship with flash fiction. Have you always been attracted to short fiction or is this a new endeavor for you?  

Laura: Flash Fiction is a new endeavor for me.  To be perfectly honest I was not much of a fan of short stories until I started reading flash fiction.  I am most attracted to writing 100 word stories.  To me it is a huge challenge to write a story that resonates with people and brings out some emotion in just 100 words;  finding just the right words to be succinct and elicit some response.  But now I am looking forward to expanding my horizons a bit.

Nancy: Have you been to Costa Rica before? What are you most looking forward to?

Laura: Costa Rica has long been on my travel bucket list so I am very excited.  I am a huge nature lover and am looking forward to being in a totally different environment than the ones I experience day to day.

Nancy: What piece of your own writing are you most proud of?   

Laura: I have been writing a book for the past 5 years.  It is called “Letters to my Sons” and it is part memoir and part pearls of wisdom.  There are so many things that I wish I had taught my four sons before they left home and this is my way of doing that.   It includes stories of past experiences that resulted in my learning something about myself or the world.  I was hoping to have it completed about two years ago, but, well, you know how that goes . . .

Nancy: That’s a powerful impetus to write. Now react to this quote by Costa Rican writer Carmen Naranjo: ” “Stories break silence and nourish those who work, feel, and dream.”

Laura: Very often while I was raising my sons in an effort to communicate with them, especially when they were teenagers, I told stories to them either about something in my own life or a friend’s life.  These stories would “break the silence” and get us talking.  Everyone has a story to tell and it’s our job as fellow humans to find those stories and encourage the telling of those stories.  In doing so, we will all be nourished and our lives will be richer not only because we heard others’ stories but because we were encouraged to tell our own.

Nancy: You are so right–even in the real world we use stories to get at the difficult things. I love that. Now tell us something we don’t know about you?

Laura: My two favorite quotes are “When something goes wrong, the adventure begins” and “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”  I am always trying to have new experiences, both large and small.  Whenever something goes wrong in my best laid plans I try not to panic.   Instead I say to myself, well, this will make a good story.

Nancy: Yes–it’s all writing material! Anything else you want to add?  

Laura: This is a first for me, to hang around with a bunch of writers in a beautiful atmosphere.  I am very excited to be joining you and look forward to meeting everyone.

Nancy: We are happy to meet you too, Laura!

Laura Alexander currently lives in San Rafael, California with her husband of 37 years and works as a Charge Nurse for an Ambulatory Surgery Center.  In her free time besides writing she is an avid photographer, video editor and beekeeper.  Three of her four sons live in the area along with her new granddaughter so she tries to get in as much family time as she can.



Interviews, Kathy fish, Nancy Stohlman

Karen Stefano in Conversation with Nancy Stohlman & Kathy Fish

Many thanks to the amazing Karen Stefano, author of The Secret Games of Words and a forthcoming memoir, Vigilance, for inviting Nancy and me to take part in her wonderful podcast series. Here, we talked about all things flash fiction, about our flash fiction retreats, and did a “mini workshop” of our own flash stories. Have a listen!

Karen Stefano in Conversation with Nancy Stohlman & Kathy Fish


Writing & Striving for a Happier, Healthier Lifestyle: A Chat with Lucy Merklee

Lucy Merklee will be joining Nancy and me (along with her husband, Bill) for Writing Wild in Costa Rica! Lucy comes from a corporate background and looks to explore creative writing, particularly the flash fiction form, with us this January.
Hi Lucy! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. Have you ever visited Costa Rica before? What interests/fascinates you about that part of the world?
I have never visited Costa Rica, but I have heard so many wonderful things from friends and family that have been. It is supposedly gorgeous and has wonderful weather year-round, so I am very excited to travel there with my husband for the retreat.
You are relatively new to creative writing. What got you interested? What do you enjoy writing about?
What interests me as a writer is anything that helps me grow as a person and enables me to get inside and really feel whatever the character is experiencing.
What comes to mind when you think of the word “retreat”? And how do you find ways to make time for yourself and your own creativity in your day to day life?
Two years ago as I was approaching my 50th birthday, I decided that I wanted to make healthier choices and live a happier lifestyle. So I engaged a life coach and he really helped me see things from a different perspective. I have lost 70 pounds and have never felt better. I still do have some weight to lose before I get to my goal, however my clothes fit and I feel great.
I really enjoy coaching other people on how to change the way they look at things, because then things change the way they look. I also love to give unsolicited advice, but no longer take it personally if people aren’t open at that moment to what I’m saying. Sometimes all it takes is the right person, saying something in exactly the right way, at the right time when you are ready to hear it. I strive to be that for everyone I encounter.
Now that my kids are grown, I am able to focus on what I want my second chapter to look like. I volunteer every week for two hours at the local animal shelter working with the dogs and the cats, and I absolutely love it. It’s incredibly fulfilling. I also mentor at risk high school students via a program through work, and I have received the president’s volunteer service award for the past three years because I volunteer over 100 hours a year.
Most of the writing I have done has been corporate in nature, as I have a Masters Degree in corporate communication. I also dabble in shorter stories and have an idea for something I want to work on while at the retreat in terms of flash fiction.
Oh, I’m excited to see your flash idea come to fruition in Costa Rica, Lucy! Can you share something about yourself (a memory, anecdote, coincidence, special/weird talent, etc.) you’d like to share with us?
I enjoy all forms of exercise including swimming (we have a pool, so I usually swim about a half a mile every day at lunch), walking, running (in the cooler weather I usually do about two miles a day), yoga, tennis, pickle ball, you name it, I am up for it! I also enjoy needlepoint, Reading, gardening, and can hold my own with the best of them on most TV shows.
Thanks so much, Lucy!
BIO: Lucy Merklee is a full-time working mother of two amazing adult children. She has worked at AT&T for 28 years in a multitude of roles and will stay as long as they’ll have her. Lucy lives in Wanaque, NJ with her wonderful husband Bill and two awesome cats. If anyone is looking for three hermit crabs, she would be very happy to rehome them with all supplies, as they were left behind by her daughter when she moved out.
Note: Does Writing Wild in Costa Rica this January sound appealing to you? A very few spaces remain! Find more information HERE.

Going for the Throat: Chantal Ryan on the Profound Humanity of Flash Fiction



Chantal Ryan is coming all the way from Australia to “Write Wild” with Kathy Fish and I in Costa Rica this January! We chatted about intimate rituals, overcoming distractions, the wilds of the forest and the lyrics of Eminem:

Nancy Stohlman: The biggest challenge most writers have is finding the time to write. How do you “retreat” in your day-to-day life in order to honor your creativity?

Chantal Ryan: I have a three year old who I watch over all day every day. We call him “The Hurricane” for a reason. I’ve often read writers who are parents talk about how they always wake before their children in order to get some interruption-free work time in. Not me! Not even a hurricane can get me out of bed before eight in the morning. Instead, I know it’s time to punch the clock right after I tuck him into bed for the night. I guess you can say my solution to art and life is to work the night shift!

I do make an effort to read throughout the day, which I always think of as writing-adjacent. Sometimes when I’m doing chores I perform thought experiments on my stories, trying to solve problems I’ve encountered during the last writing session.

Nancy: Yes, as a mother I can relate! Can you tell us about your relationship with flash fiction?

Chantal: I’ve always written flash fiction – I’ve been writing it far longer than I knew there was a name for it! I’m partial to mood and atmosphere – anything that can move me, make me feel something different, take me to some other place for even a moment in time, it’s a special thing to me, and it’s the only thing I ever really want from a story. Make me feel. Of course, in kind, I seek to do the same for others. A few broad brush strokes of colour, some stark suggestive lines… that’s all we need. The rest can be so much fluff. I like things that go for the throat.

Nancy: “Going for the throat”: I love that. What is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

Chantal: My answer will probably change depending on the day, the struggle. But I’ll put a lyric from Eminem here – a true artist, a profound storyteller – that so succinctly demonstrated to me what it is to tell a story. The song is called Difficult, and it’s a tribute to his best friend who was murdered:

“And this may sound a little strange but I’mma tell it—

I found that jacket that you left at my wedding

and I picked it up to smell it

I wrapped it up in plastic until I put it in glass

and hang up in the hallway so I can always look at it”

And right there, that’s so real. That really happened, and it’s those tiny moments that are where the stories are, where the humanity lies. A grown man smelling the shirt of a man he loved and had to bury. The mundane becoming sacred because of what it represents. Our small, profound rituals. Those five lines remind me about everything present in good writing – saying so much with so little; invoking the senses; laying bare the intimate motions of our lives. Flash fiction, right? Going for the throat.

Nancy: I love that you quoted Eminem! What piece of your own writing are you most proud of?  

Chantal: Hm, it’s a good question. You know we don’t like to assign favourites to our children. There’s a flash piece I wrote called “Hegira” that means a lot to me, for a lot of reasons. It’s full of everything I want from a story. Something that can be read straightforwardly, but reveals a different tale when the symbolism is interpreted. It ends with an uplifting message, which is rare for me – in my stories, someone or everyone always seems to die at the end. In this story, the death is at the beginning, so maybe that’s the trick.

I haven’t published the story. Though some who have read it told me it helped them find solace, or touched them to tears, and that’s all we ever really want, right? For a piece of us to touch a piece of someone else in some shared numinous space. A stranger wrote me an amazing message about that story and how it had moved them. When I finished reading it my hands were shaking. Art, man.

Nancy: Wow. It’s so special when readers take the time to reach back to us. So on that note, react to this quote by Toni Morrison: “We are traditionally rather proud of ourselves for having slipped creative work in there between the domestic chores and obligations. I’m not sure we deserve such a big A-plus for that.”

Chantal: It’s interesting you bring her up, I’m actually reading Beloved by Toni Morrison right now! It’s so wonderful. It’s been a while since I read a novel that moved me so. Her mind, it’s a scalpel that moves with perfect grace.

When looking at our society as a whole, I believe she’s correct. Art is work as much as play, it contributes as much, it should not be relegated to second fiddle. But our western society undervalues art and encourages, or even forces, us to spend our time doing all sorts of busywork, sending unending obligations our way. Our communities are fractured, we don’t help each other as much as we could or should, and as such we’re all bearing a lot of burden, especially burdens of time. I don’t begrudge people falling by the wayside in terms of allowing their creative hearts to wither when we’re under such a cascade of distractions.

But as a society, certainly, creative work should not be “slipped in between”, like a naughty bit of play. It should be as much part of our survival work as meeting physical needs like hunger and shelter. So many of us have forgotten how to use our hands and our hearts. We need to encourage each other to keep them active. Take pride in our soulwork.

Nancy: We will be using our “hands and our hearts” in Costa Rica for sure. Now you are coming all the way from Australia! Have you been to Costa Rica before? What are you most looking forward to?

Chantal: I am! And I haven’t been to Costa Rica before, but it’s one of the places my spirit lies, I’m sure. I’m a dendrophile, so the notion of visiting such a biodiverse place makes my heart swell just to think about it. Throw in an ocean I can swim with the sea creatures in and a group of people whose minds manifest just like mine and I’m probably going to be so overjoyed I’m just going to go supersaiyan. So I guess I’m looking forward to the spiky white hair.

Nancy: Tell us something we don’t know about you?

Chantal: Some defining fact, huh? When I was five my favourite movie was Child’s Play and my favourite toy was a Chucky doll I carried around with me everywhere. Five year old me delighted in throwing it in the bath with my younger brother to scare him. I guess you could say horror runs in my blood. Funny thing about that doll – my mom swears she got fed up with my brother-traumatizing antics one day and tossed the doll in the trash. Says she left the room and when she came back, it was on the dining table, facing her. Now, I obviously can’t vouch for this story as I wasn’t there, but I will say my mom is not the jokester type.

I will say I think the world is a more interesting place than we give it credit for.

Nancy! Ha! Anything else you want to add?

Chantal: Please recycle!

Nancy: Yes! I’ve enjoyed getting to know you so much here, Chantal, and I can’t wait to meet you in person!

Chantal Ryan would rather be in the forest. But when she’s not, she settles as a letter-witch: words become incantations, prayer-attempts get to those thudding places amongst the roots–and maybe take you with.

*We have 3 spots left in Costa Rica this January–Join us! Find out more