BackStory: Five Questions with Jennifer Falkner

Detail of flea circus handbill

BackStory: Five Questions with Jennifer Falkner
Author of Professor Lazzo’s Stupendous Flea Circus

What inspired you to write this piece?
Proving that inspiration truly can come from anywhere, Professor Lazzo was born while I was listening to a Stuff You Should Know podcast. I grabbed my notebook and started scribbling before the podcast had even ended.

Who are your favourite historical fiction writers and why?
Frances Itani, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters, Hilary Mantel, Robert Graves, Robert Harris. They make their research invisible and bring the past to life with the small detail, a smell or a scrap of fabric or a snatch of song. Sarah Waters in The Paying Guests was particularly good in having the domestic details of running a home inform the story without ever coming across as didactic.

How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
This was difficult to research. I could find very little published on flea circuses and what I did find was often contradictory or focussed on a later period than I wanted. I was surprised how long circuses lasted, until the middle of the twentieth century in some places. And that circuses that used imaginary fleas were just as popular as the ones that used real ones.

If you could live for one year in any historical period, when and where would it be, and why?
The excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the eighteenth century, which admittedly were more like treasure hunts than proper archaeological digs. But perhaps that was part of the fun. The frescoes were still bright, the statues not yet looted. And the characters who were attracted to the site, like William and Emma Hamilton, Johann Wincklemann, Roque Joachin Alcibierre, were all larger than life.

What do you like most about writing flash?
I am relatively new to flash, but I am in love with what I’ve been reading so far. Flash fiction can take more experimental forms that have more to do with distilling a moment, examining a shift of mood, than traditional patterns of storytelling. What Kathy Fish called “a feeling of meaningful change.”

Jennifer Falkner’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Jellyfish Review, The Steel Chisel, Firewords Quarterly and Spelk, among other places. She lives in Ottawa, Canada. She can be found online at and @JenFalkner on Twitter.

Image detail: Evening Post (Wellington, N.Z.). The wonderful performing fleas! The world’s greatest novelty! The biggest wonder of the age! / Printed at the Evening Post Office, Willis Street, Wellington, [ca 1889]. Ref: Eph-C-VARIETY-1889-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.