top of page

EXCLUSIVE: 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."