AN INTERVIEW WITH CATHY ULRICH
in discussion with CHARLIE ALLISON
CA: Who are some of your favorite (or most formative) literary influences?
CU: This is always such a hard question for me to answer because I love so many flash writers, and I'm sure to leave a favorite out if I make a list. Every flash piece I read influences me in some way, and I am so grateful for all the beautiful stories and writers out there. Other than flash, I read a lot of biographies (mostly Depression-era criminals and silent movie stars) and manga/comic books. I love things like Kurt Busiek's Astro City and Yuki Midorikawa's Natsume's Book of Friends. As a child, I read a lot of fairy tales and, well, again, comic books, so those have always influenced me in some way.
CA: Recent history is fascinating stuff—I want to talk about fairy tales and comic books in a minute, but what draws you as a reader and writer to the bios of silent movie stars and Depression era-criminals? Is there a thematic overlap there or they just happen to be things you enjoy?
CU: I remember how I got interested in Depression-era criminals -- I read something online that referenced Bonnie and Clyde and it just didn't seem right, so I decided to do some research on them myself. Then I was like, "well, what about Dillinger? What about the Barker gang?" and now I have a larger collection of books on Depression-era crime than the local library.
As far as silent movie stars, I have adored Buster Keaton and his work for, oh gosh, probably at least two decades, so I'd already read up on him. But I found this book of pinup movie stars and there was this girl with beautiful curls: Mary Pickford. And I was thought, "I must learn more!" So I did.
Eventually, I'll probably get interested in some other topic -- vaudeville performers are starting to look pretty intriguing lately!
CA: There is something about Vaudevillian (correct conjugation?) performances that remind me favorably of old beast fables and tricksters. Something about the elegance of being so precisely obvious. To bring us back to fairy tales--what ones resonated with you as a child? Do they surprise you now? What tale (if any?) have you looked at and thought "Damn, I'd love to take a crack at that?"
CU: A lot of the silent movie greats started in vaudeville and brought that, yes, trickster-like feel to their performances. They really knew how to connect with an audience, even through a movie screen. Fairy tales -- I like things like The Goose Girl because why would she go along with that? Because she has to, for the story to work. And what I love about fairy tales is, you know, these are women's stories. People think of them as being written by the Grimm Brothers, but they really just sat down with some women and wrote down the stories these women told. I like the Seven Swan Brothers, too. I've come back to that one a few times in my writing, even had a love story published in Gingerbread House about the youngest brother with the swan's wing arm.
I'm interested in the transformation and silence aspect of them, how both of these characters could have spoken, but didn't. And in the end, the day is saved, of course.
CA: That’s the real catch, isn't it--the counter-factuals of fairy tales? The room for deviation and extrapolation that keeps them alive through the centuries, lets them adapt to the times. Lets move on from the inspirations for your writing to the process itself. You primarily write short fiction and micro-fiction--do you use a dedicated writing space or catch as catch can when it comes to your work?
CU: If the break-room at work could be considered a dedicated writing space, then yes! (You can go ahead and insert the awkward laughter there.)
I tend to write my stories on notepads from the local casket company -- I'm not a writer who can sit in front of a computer screen and compose something new. I have to write it out by hand first. A lot of my stories are scratched out in bits and pieces as I'm getting ready for work/to get my daughter to school in the morning, and then I write them into a form that makes sense during my lunch break at work. After that, I input them on a computer, print out a copy and get to editing.
So that's a pretty longwinded way of saying "catch as catch can."
CA: I seem to recall some studies that state that people tend to remember and internalize information better if we have tactile experience with it—say, turning the pages of a physical book, or writing things down by hand.
Let's run with the catch-as-catch-can for a minute—is there an energy or ethos that comes from in this manner (necessity) that you think effects your writing? Was your first published work written in this way? Has your process of writing changed since you began or remained more or less a given?
CU: Partly it is necessity -- when I was very small, my parents let me have the old typewriter to write stories on. This was also a necessity because I had terrible handwriting as a child! So if I wrote stories by hand, I couldn't read them later. So I would sit at this ancient typewriter and plunk away. But with a computer, I tend to get distracted -- "oh, I'll check my e-mail," "oh, did someone message me," "oh, I absolutely need to play 12 games of solitaire this instant" -- so it works out much better if I have something that needs inputting rather than expecting myself to actually get any writing done that way.
Also, I've found that the words just flow better when I write them by hand ... which is strange, because I type much faster than I write (probably from all that typing as a child!). I used to write stories on lined pieces of paper, but as I've progressed, I've fallen in love with these little notepads. They are the perfect size for flash.
CA: To continue with that line of thought a bit, other than the previously mentioned considerations, what drew you (And obviously continues to draw you to) flash fiction?
CU: This is always a hard question for me to answer. Flash is such a great medium -- it's so immediate and powerful. In the right hands, a flash piece can be like music. Yet it's not poetry!
So the answer is, really, I don't know. I love flash, and I definitely prefer it to longer fiction nowadays (because there are so many amazing flash writers at work right now), but I can't really explain why!
CA: What advice do you have for anyone looking to get into writing--specifically flash fiction?
CU: My advice is: read. Read, read, read.
I can't stress enough how important reading is to being a good writer. You can read the classics all day if you like, but don't forget about all the amazing modern writers out there. Especially for flash! There is such a depth of talent in flash fiction -- if you're not reading at least some of the amazing writers out there nowadays, you are really missing out.
CA: Are there stories that you have specifically hoarded away for a rainy day to write? Or a type of writing you’re looking forward to eventually breaking into?
CU: I wish I could hoard stories away! For me, I can't write unless I have both the idea and the words -- so I have a few story ideas that are just stuck until I hear the right words to set them free. But it's not intentional that I'm not writing them; it's more a product of my writing process.
I've written poetry, plays, novels, short stories, news articles.... I even wrote an online comic for a (late) friend's web site about a monster slayer named Aloysius Hunkapillar. Really! So there's not really any type of writing I'm looking to get into. I've kind of muddled my way into all sorts of writing! Flash fiction has been my favorite.
Here's a link to the web comic.
CA: Do you have pet peeves, in terms of tropes and archetypes that show up in fiction? Conversely, are there old tropes and themes that you think are long due for a come back in fiction?
CU: I think archetypes and tropes are absolutely necessary to writing fiction -- there's only so many stories in the world, you know? But every writer can make those archetypes and tropes their own. But as far as pet peeves -- I am absolutely exhausted by the male gaze in fiction. I don't mind stories about men or by men or for men, but I am tired of writers who make the female characters cardboard cutouts (except for their sensational breasts and legs, of course) or mere plot points for the men. I'm weary of the good ol' boy "get me a beer and make me a sammich, woman" narrator. They've had their day. Their stories have been told and told and told.
And the "woman as plot points" issue is what I'm addressing in my Murdered Ladies stories [Editor's Note: this series is an upcoming collection "Ghosts of You" available for preorder with Okay Donkey]. How many stories do you see where the woman is killed as motivation for a man? To set the plot in motion?
If anything is due for a comeback, I can't think of it. I don't think any tropes and themes ever really go away. Like I said: there's only so many stories in the world.
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Cathy Ulrich’s "Ghosts of You" is a collection of stories from her Murdered Ladies Series about seeking the lost and finding the person behind the sensationalism. It examines and subverts the tropes of mystery and crime storytelling in which the narrative always begins with the body of yet another murdered woman. They are mothers and daughters, teachers and students, lovers and wives, actresses and extras. They have been taken, but their stories still remain. This is how they set the plot in motion.
RELEASE DATE OCTOBER 15, 2019!
Cathy Ulrich is a mixed-race writer from Montana. She is the editor of Milk Candy Review, a journal of flash fiction. Her writing can be found in various publications, including Black Warrior Review, Passages North, Best Microfiction 2019 and Best Small Fiction 2019. She can be found on Twitter: @loki_writes.
Charlie Allison is a writer, researcher and free-lance editor currently living in West Philadelphia. He graduated from Arcadia University's Creative Writing Program with a Master's Degree. His work has been published by Podcastle, the Stone Coast Review, Pickman's Press and Ellipsis. When not elbows and knees deep on research on Central Asian history, Nikita Khrushchev's more earthy sayings or Nahuatl suffixes, he can be found perfecting his headstands or historical storytelling. He is currently working on an ecological fantasy novel set in a world without monsters, but with Faustian bargains and squid-people that he began in his artist residency in Montserrat, Spain. You can find out more about him at charlie-allison.com or on twitter @cballison421.