Wednesday, March 02, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Ursula Pflug

Ursula Pflug is author of the critically acclaimed novels Green Music (Edge/Tesseract 2002); The Alphabet Stones (Blue Denim 2013); and Motion Sickness (illustrated by S.K. Dyment, Inanna 2014) as well as the story collections After The Fires (Tightrope 2008) and Harvesting the Moon (PS 2014). Her award winning stories have been published in Canada, the US and the UK, in literary and genre publications and anthologies including Lightspeed, Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Postscripts, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Now Magazine, Quarry, Tesseracts, Leviathan, The Nine Muses, On Spec, Transversions and many more. Pflug has has been shortlisted or nominated for the Sunburst Award, the Aurora Award, the Pushcart Prize, the 3 Day Novel Contest, the Descant Novella Award, the KM Hunter Award and others. Her work has been funded by The Ontario Arts Council, the Canada Council for the Arts and The Laidlaw Foundation. She edited the anthologies They Have To Take You In (Hidden Brook Press  2014), a fundraiser for mental health and Playground of Lost Toys (with Colleen Anderson, Exile Publications 2015). She has taught creative writing at Loyalist College, Trinity Square Video, The Campbellford Resource Centre, Trent University (with Derek Newman-Stille), The Word Is Wild Literary Festival, The San Miguel Writers' Conference and elsewhere. Her non-fiction about books and art has appeared in Strange Horizons, The Link, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Mix Magazine, The Country Connection, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Now Magazine and other publications. Her short fiction has been taught at universities in Canada and India. She has collaborated with dancers, sculptors, installation artists and film-makers on multi-disciplinary projects, some of which have toured dance and film festivals, and has served on the executive of arts boards including SFCanada.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Even if you haven’t laboured in relative obscurity for decades, it's gratifying. It can also help with grants and readings and subsequent books—you're seen as more established even if you've previously published a million things in journals and anthologies. And if you've published one book and people liked it, there’s a new momentum to the writing. You`re more likely to finish some of the others you’ve got on the go.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I scribbled navel gazing poems in black hard covered journals I bought at Gwartzman's in Toronto as an adolescent and young adult, but they never amounted to much I was willing to share with the world. I actually won small press awards in the US and the UK for speculative prose poems but they are a different animal, a hybrid form. Kind of like a mule. My daughter on the other hand won awards for astonishing poems while still in her teens. Reading her poems it was very clear to me that I`d made the right decision—poetry was fine for journaling but I wasn't a poet. I actually was a non-fiction writer very early on. I was an art columnist for Now Magazine near its inception and published dozens of reviews and essays on the Toronto scene in the early 80's. It was a heady time—the Queen West boom years when art came downtown. At that time I`d only published a small handful of short stories.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
See # 7. I published The Alphabet Stones with Shane Joseph’s Coburg small press, Blue Denim, in 2013. I started the novel in the mid-eighties before we left the city for eastern Ontario—which is where it takes place although I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. It came from a dream that was so compelling I had to try and commit the emotions and images to the page. The typewriter page, I might add. I’m trying to downsize and the other day I came across a case of random notes I’d never re-cycled that included sketches for a pivotal scene in the book—they are both very similar and quite different from the final of the same scene that I wrote decades later. So—some scenes are similar to the final and others (the ones that took me decades to craft) are either completely different from the first draft or entirely new. The book was longlisted for The ReLit and I tell students that this is a success story. It was a book I could never quite get where I wanted it to be but I couldn’t walk away from it either, which is what any number of other saner people would have done. Don’t give up, I tell them, stick with it, but I’m not sure it’s actually an encouraging story. Run!--might be better advice. If it weren’t for the incomparable delight when it’s going well.

4 - Where does a work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I’ve done it both ways. But novels are maps of foreign countries you can get lost in for years and I’m older now and know better. I’m working on a story that occasionally whispers I might be a novel, but I kick it in the shins whenever it says that. I’m desperately looking for a suitable closure so that I can tie off the end before there’s any more blood loss.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I used to hate them because I suffered from extreme stage fright. Oddly, since I went through menopause and finally quit smoking my brain chemistry or something has changed and I love it. Anything to get away from that novel that whispers, please write me.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I haven’t thought about that in so long! My partner is a multi-media artist and in the art community at a certain point the critic became paramount and our friends were suddenly quoting post-structuralists instead of telling me their own thoughts and opinions—and this disheartened me. In literature this is much less the case; most novelists have even less of a clue about theory than I do. Two feminist writers, interestingly enough both native French speakers who successfully included a theoretical approach in their fiction are Nicole Brossard, a Canadian, and Monique Wittig, originally from France. Their beautiful books The Mauve Desert and Les Guérillères respectively still take pride of place on my shelves. Both are concerned with feminism and language—my French isn`t great and sadly I've read them only in translation.

When we first left the city I had a Works-in-Progress grant and Writers' Reserve funding from Descant and that support gave me the time to explore while I stayed home with small children. Partly because of my theoretical reading I thought about voice and language much more than I thought about structure as I worked on a novel called Drastic Travels that, much later, became The Alphabet Stones. Plot plot plot; that's what matters, aspiring novelists are told now but a beautifully turned phrase or carefully etched narrative voice is still what is most likely to give me the shivers and want to read till the end. As to why fiction is important—theoretical vagaries aside, the answer doesn't change; novels tell us what it`s like to be human.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Fiction writers describe the inner life in a way that no one else does. Film and television observe and describe the exterior. Young people going through an angsty phase would still be well advised to read stacks of novels. Novels can teach us that we`re not alone; someone somewhere (and it might be a hundred years ago) felt just as we feel now and cared enough to try to articulate it as accurately as possible.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
My first experience on a book length work was with Edmonton author Timothy Anderson who edited my novel Green Music. There was a long conversation between the male and female MC's—and after Tim's judicious cuts I realized that Danny now read as much more of a guy. Tim didn't add things, but by taking things away he heightened, to my mind, the character's masculinity. I was blown away and it gave me a sense of what great editing can be. My friend Jan Thornhill who writes quirky short stories for adults as well as her award winning kids' science books did a terrific job editing my second novel The Alphabet Stones. She is also a self-taught mycologist. Eating wild-crafted mushrooms can be a sketchy business but I have complete trust in her because of her incredible eye for detail. And her attention to meaning and punctuation in a text is similarly rigorous. On the other hand I've had requests for short story revisions that just don't make sense. I don't believe the editor is always right—and that if they hold a completely different perspective we should probably find someone else we're more in tune with--people on the same wavelength are going to be more productive working together. So my answer is—editors are essential for novels—it's easier to go astray because of the length—which is by no means always a bad thing as sometimes the new tangents end up as the heart of the book.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Be the person you needed when you were younger. That’s a facebook meme and I apologize but it is nifty.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to novels)? What do you see as the appeal?
I used to think I preferred short stories because I was raising a family and completing and publishing a  short story supplied that nice kerthunk--the sense of accomplishing something that stay at home parents need but don't often get. Since my kids moved away for school and travel I have had two novels go to press which seems to indicate it’s easier to finish them when one has fewer domestic responsibilities.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Before we started a family I’d write when I got home from my job as a graphic designer. Once we got to the country the school schedule provided the structure to my day and I had no choice but to work in the mornings. I learned how to do that although it wasn’t my natural inclination. In the first few months of 2012 I had four books accepted—three by Ontario small presses and one by a British genre publisher—a completely surreal experience but not unwelcome. I was in copy edits for years—sometimes working very long hours—and somewhere in there I`d also quit smoking which changed my relationship to writing in ways I`m still trying to understand. Writing and smoking came hand in hand at the beginning or at least, grown-up writing and smoking, so it`s been very difficult to disentangle them. Just the other day I was very excited about a short story I wanted to write and found myself reaching for the pack of cigarettes that wasn`t there. After five years! I abandoned the piece, telling Doug ìt was a story that could only have been written by a smoker. I`m still trying to find out what stories are like that aren`t written by smokers, and at what times of day non-smoking writers without children at home are most productive.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Smoking! Except, of course, this time I can`t. Hence I am no longer often inspired but discipline works as a stand-in.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Chestnut trees in bloom. The Hawai'ian raniforest. The heads of my babies.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
All of the above, except for music, which, seemingly, isn`t as true for other people. In one of my creative writing classes I noticed several students including a song reference. What a fun anthology—stories inspired by songs—it could be published with an accompanying CD of the songs. Listen while you read! Great idea but not really workable because of the time rights issues. You didn’t include biography—I wrote a Nikola Tesla story once that included a lot of research. He`s such an enigmatic inspiring figure—irresistible to writers.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Well, that changes over time, doesn't it? Let's talk about recently. Bolano made me want more, a rare occurrence, but his others didn't inspire me as much as Los Detectives Salvajes. Ruth Ozeki's multiple-award winning A Tale For The Time Being made me happy--it did so many of the things I want a novel to do. Last winter I read some Orwell and Woolf I had never gotten round to, Homage to Catalonia and Burmese Days; Orlando and To The Lighthouse. The contemporary voice can become exhausting and the attention to detail in these between the wars books helped quench my thirst for well-crafted language. I also reread more recent books I once loved and wanted to remember why--including Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea and Woman On The Edge Of Time, in which Marge Piercy invents the smart phone and calls it a kenner.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Play with my grandchildren. (No pressure, kids!) I taught workshops in Mexico last winter and I`d like to do more of that—teach workshops while traveling. It creates a window into a community that just visiting doesn't provide—even when you`re staying with expat friends.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

In high school I was told by my teachers I should go on to study biology but I didn't follow this advice. I have biologist friends and like listening to them partly because it's like hanging out with the self I could have been.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Joy and delight. In my twenties I spent a huge fraction of my free time writing because I loved it. That tells you something, doesn't it? I have students who are talented and capable but not enthralled and obsessive, and they may fail because of it. That might be a good thing, paving the way to a sensible job. The ones who are good may not become amazing if they skip the part about being driven to do little else. Of course, writing wasn't competing with the internet when we were youngsters. Who knows what I'd be like if I was starting out now?

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Ruth Ozeki's A Tale For The Time Being which deservedly won multiple awards. I loved it so much I spent my Writers’ Reserve money writing a feature length essay about it which was published in The New York Review Of Science Fiction last year. Writing about books you love can be a way of expanding the time you spend with them. Films to my mind are almost all mediocre now. A great film? Uh...maybe I’m just not aware of the good ones. Children of Men—how’s that? It was years ago now but it knocked my socks off. Much better than the P.D. James novel, which proves the old adage that it’s much easier to make a great film out of an average book than out of a great book. Look what they did to Cloud Atlas. Yawn.

20 - What are you currently working on?
Together with Vancouver editor and author Colleen Anderson I recently finished editing Playground Of Lost Toys, a speculative fiction anthology for Exile with a December 1st [2015] release date. I meant to write over the summer but several friends sent me manuscripts to read, and some of them were people I owed, so I did that instead. The one thing I finished this year to my satisfaction was a short story about an East German hacktivist. German was my mother tongue (or is it called father-tongue in German?) and I have friends and family in Berlin so I was a little disturbed when I read Franzen's Purity. If I'd known I was being so zeit-geisty I might've also turned the material into a novel. And what does Franzen know from East Berlin anyhow? Really, I’m just trying to get back to a routine. I’d like to finish a few short stories before the year is out. That’s the lovely thing about short stories, they’re always there waiting when a big project is done and you’re not sure what the next one will be or if you even want one. They’re comforting, like friends that come over and drink tea with you and hold your hand. They step in and catch you when you’re about to fall.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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