Hybrid Interview: Cathy Ulrich
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. —CRAFT
By Kate Finegan •
The Pieces Left Behind
In Cathy Ulrich’s debut flash fiction collection, Ghosts of You (Okay Donkey Press, 2019), the murdered lady sets the plot in motion. These forty stories are all named in the same fashion, “Being the Murdered X,” and begin with the same line: “The thing about being the murdered X is you set the plot in motion.” They are all written in future tense, and they all use second-person perspective to directly address the victim. As such, this is one of the most formally and thematically unified collections I have ever read. The use of future tense—“Your house will become full after your death”—gives these stories the weight of psychic visions, a sense of inevitability. And the repetition of titles, opening lines, images, and language lend the pieces a dream-like quality, particularly if you read this collection compulsively, as I did.
The way Cathy Ulrich talks about writing, you might think she pulled these stories out of dreams. In her mini-interview with Tommy Dean, she said that a lot of her work “goes into the shredder” and “if the words aren’t pretty damn close to their final form when I first write them, there’s really no way they can be saved.” In our email correspondence, she explained her writing process as follows: “The way it works is I hear a voice in my head telling the story. It might be me, it might be the muse, I don’t know. But I hear the voice and I write down the words.”
In my mind, it’s clear to see where this trusty voice comes from: Ulrich engages with the flash form like few other writers do. In addition to single-handedly bringing us the wonder that is Milk Candy Review, she also serves as Fiction Editor for Atlas and Alice and for Parentheses Journal and shares flash from across the internet on Twitter @loki_writes. That much reading gets under your skin, makes words flow more freely through you.
This is a collection concerned with the pieces left behind in the aftermath of murder, as communities must go on living around the sudden absence. While this collection highlights the harmful trope of either blaming or romanticizing murdered women, the stories are frequently touching portraits of well-intentioned people trying to go on after the inconceivable has ripped their lives in two—the before and the daunting ever-after. In addition to the second-person address to the murder victim, Ulrich also boldly inhabits the minds of other characters. In “Being the Murdered Daughter,” these shifts highlight how grief can separate people who might otherwise be tied together by a shared loss. The mother says, “Not now” when her sister-in-law calls, and it’s not hard to see why: this woman has just lost her daughter, and other people’s grief and well-wishes can be exhausting. This paragraph has only one sentence, and within that single sentence, we jump into the mind of the sister-in-law, “who will be clutching her own phone in her hand, who will be thinking how small you were when you were born.”
Weren’t we all small when we were born? Don’t we all try to grasp at certainties when death pulls the floor out from beneath our feet? “Not now, your mother will say again, put her arm around your tall father, go up on her toes like she has always done when she wanted a kiss.” Always is a powerful word in times like these, and always is a fitting word in a collection that critiques and questions reliable tropes—that the dead girl will always be viewed as either a perfect angel too good for this world, or a devil who got what she deserved. In the wake of death, people attempt to fit the victim’s entire life into a manageable narrative, an always, as Ulrich discussed in The Rumpus and Cease, Cows. They want to believe they really knew her—who she was, who she will always be in their flawed memories. In her interview with Superstition Review, Ulrich said she hopes that this collection will prompt readers to remind themselves when they see sensationalized murder stories in the news, “This person was real. This person used to dream.”
The ghosts of the lost are everywhere within these pages; they inhabit the musty places in the attic, the wrinkle of your bedspread, the framed photos that gather dust—and they will, I’m sure of it, haunt you long after you turn the final page of this singular, stunning new collection from one of flash fiction’s greatest champions and practitioners.
Kate Finegan: In your CRAFT author’s note to “Being the Murdered Extra,” you say, “I’m looking for the lost in these stories. I don’t know if I will ever find them.” I was wondering if you would expand upon that. Have you come closer to finding any of the lost by working through a complete collection?
Cathy Ulrich: I’m not sure I’ll ever completely find the lost with these stories. I’m finding parts of them, pieces—snippets. Really, pieces are all that’s left once a person is gone. I’m finding more and more of the things left behind as I continue writing these stories, but never the entirety of a person. And, of course, what I need to keep in mind as well is that I am creating these found things, these hints. So I’m not really finding anything, or anyone. I’m making them.
KF: I’m interested in how we articulate death as a loss for other people— “Sorry for your loss.” Everyone in this collection (including the ever-present “you”) is, in some way, navigating a loss. From a craft perspective, how do you approach circling a life-sized loss in such a compact space? Is it similar to how certain memories and gestures take on special magnitude in the face of loss?
CU: These stories focus on moments and pieces (I’m going to be using that word a lot, I think, “pieces”) rather than telling the whole story. So rather than dealing with the loss in its entirety—which I’m not sure I could manage, not just as a writer, but as a person—I keep the focus really narrow, really microscopic. Which implies a larger whole, I think, for the reader. So they can fill in the spaces with their own ideas of what exactly has been lost and what exactly it means.
I like that idea of certain memories and gestures taking on a special magnitude—when I think of people I have lost, I definitely remember them not in their entirety (or not in the entirety that I knew, anyway, because who really knows all of a person?), but in specific moments, specific places. There’s one specific person—someone I loved who was killed—and I always remember just this one moment at his apartment, the feel of his chipped front tooth bumping up against mine when we kissed on his leather couch. It’s always that moment, it’s always that piece of him that I carry with me.
These stories, I think, are just collections of these moments. These little pieces of the people we have lost.
KF: One thing that’s lost in many of these stories is the victim’s name. In “Being the Murdered Lepidopterist,” you speak to the power of names using a familiar call on social media: “Say her name, say her name, say her name.” Names in this collection are forgotten, or used to caution daughters, or to make a name for someone else (as in “Being the Murdered Wife” and “Being the Murdered Muse”), or to tear a family apart (as in “Being the Murdered Detective”). What is the power of names, and what is the power of replacing the name with you in these stories?
CU: Names are really powerful things—they can be used to define someone or something, or recreate them. I remember reading about a study where there wasn’t a word for a certain shade of, I think it was, pink, and, until people were given a name for that shade, they couldn’t tell it apart from other shades. It simply didn’t exist for them until it was given a name. That’s some powerful stuff! And taking a name can be just as powerful. It takes away someone’s agency, their existence.
Another interesting take on names: In mythology and folklore, names are used as a means of control. If you know someone’s real name, that gives you power over them.
In my flash fiction, I rarely use names because there is so much power packed into them. When you see a name in one of my stories, it has usually been chosen for a reason! Although, sometimes, it might mean someone had a cool last name in the obituaries and I wanted to use it. (I’m mercurial like that.)
In these stories in particular, I didn’t want to give the women names. I wanted them to be anyone, to be everyone. I’m kind of curious how people picture these women—do they think of white women, black women, tall women, short women? I have an idea in my head on some of them (“Muse” and “Lepidopterist” are two where I have a very specific image of the woman, actually), but others, it doesn’t really matter. I think giving them names would be a way to put my image into readers’ heads, and, for these stories, that’s not what I want.
KF: We carry memories with us, but in this collection, there is so much imagery of birds, butterflies, bats, and wings—of things that take off, that rise. What drew you to these images of freedom, of movement? I’m thinking particularly of the bats in the attic in “Being the Murdered Daughter.”
CU: I’m glad you brought up the bats! They came into being for a very simple reason: fellow writer/editor K.C. Mead-Brewer and I have a shared fondness for bats, and I said to her, “I need to write a murdered ladies story and put some bats in it.” I hope she will like it when she reads it!
But just because I wanted to throw some bats into a story doesn’t mean there’s not more to it! (Okay, maybe it means that!)
Really, though, most of the imagery of birds, butterflies came from things I’ve seen in my own life—it was moth season when I wrote “Lepidopterist,” and the swallows were dipping and darting through traffic, chasing after moths, and there’s something so beautiful and tragic in that dance they do. Our yard is always filled with birds of all kinds, usually sparrows or starlings. For me, birds kind of represent life, just plain life. And that’s a real contrast against these stories, these birds just doing their thing, living their bird lives, flying, singing, and you look out the window at them and you think, but my daughter is dead.
KF: Allison Wall’s review in The Bookends Review notes that using the second-person POV means not having to explain what exactly happened— “After all, the murdered know who killed them and how it happened.” I noticed that the later stories in the collection do give more hints as to who did it or who may have done it, until we get to the final story, “Being the Murdered Indian,” which is the only one in which the loss is unresolved; the grieving do not know for sure you’re dead, as too often happens in cases of missing Indigenous women in North America. How did you go about putting the collection together, and how does the order implicate society in the loss of women?
CU: For me as the writer, there’s only a couple of the stories where I know the identity of the killer! I was really surprised when “Homecoming Queen” was published, my friend and fellow writer Lori Sambol-Brody pronounced the homecoming queen’s date as the murderer… and she is probably right! I certainly didn’t have any idea writing it that he was the killer, but on reading it, there are hints that it was probably him. So when I say “none of those hints are intentional,” I really mean it. I had no idea!
As far as putting the collection together, they are basically in chronological order as I wrote them. There’s a few that are spaced out because of similar identities (for instance, I didn’t want to run “Daughter” and “Student” side by side because both focus on families grieving lost children), but otherwise, the order is only indicative of how I’ve changed and grown as a writer.
That said, though, it was my intent from the moment Okay Donkey approached me about a collection to end the book with “Indian.” That story is a really important one to me, and I wanted the book to end on that note. There was another girl gone missing from a local reservation just this weekend, and the family said the authorities didn’t take them seriously. It needs to be taken seriously. No one should have to go through this and feel like their loved one doesn’t matter.
It’s one I hope people will see and realize, “Hey, things aren’t right if people can’t get answers, if they can’t get help.” That’s what I hope!
KF: Do you think that your work in a funeral home gives you a different sensibility about death than the average person?
CU: I don’t know if I have a different sensibility about death than the average person, but I do know I see a lot more of it than most people. What I’ve noticed is a lot of people will say, “Oh, how cool, you work in a funeral home,” but it’s really just… sad. I’m glad we’re able to help people, but sometimes it gets really hard.
KF: In your interview with Tommy Dean, you said that a lot of your work “goes into the shredder,” and you don’t engage in a ton of editing. What brings you to the page, and how does that fire fuel so many excellent first drafts? What sort of editing do you do?
CU: The way it works is I hear a voice in my head telling the story. It might be me, it might be the muse, I don’t know. But I hear the voice and I write down the words. If I try to force a story without hearing this voice, I always make a mess of things. There’s no beauty in what I’ve written when I do it that way, no soul. This little voice in my head has a pretty good feel for getting a story down in its right form from the get-go. I’ll definitely go over a story, usually, the next day—I write them out by hand on the little casket company notepads they gave me as a present, then I’ll type them up and do edits on the printed copy. That’s where I catch typos and any inefficiencies in the writing. There’s usually not huge changes from the rough draft to the final copy—if that is something that happens, it will be because I threw out the original and rewrote it. That happened with my “The Whole Girl Detective Thing.” I wrote one version, it was terrible, I threw it out. I wrote a second version, it wasn’t working, I gave up halfway through, threw it out. The third version, though! Huzzah!
KF: Many of the women in this collection are trying to get closer to the murdered ladies or even trying to become, in some way, the murdered lady (as in “Being the Murdered Actress”). What does the murdered lady trope offer to women in particular?
CU: I think a lot of people, women especially, just want to be noticed. And there’s a certain type of person who doesn’t care if they’re being noticed for negative reasons. I think they would find something kind of romantic in being the center of attention as a murder victim, though they perhaps don’t quite understand what it is exactly they’re hoping for.
In “Actress,” the women are looking for a role, for something to make them—the woman who gets chosen ends up losing herself, which is a thing you see happen a lot when an actress is brought in as a replacement for someone else: We already had the original, why would we need this person? (I mean, look at the actresses who were supposed to be the second coming of Barbara La Marr? Who even remembers them nowadays? [she said, assuming everyone is familiar with silent star Barbara La Marr].)
KF: In “Being the Murdered Professor,” the narrator says, “The minister will relate to your death through the words of men, the minister will fill the chapel with the words of men.” In “Being the Murdered Teacher,” the girls “drag their desks into a circle where the boys aren’t welcome.” Do you think that we relate to death through the words of men? What’s the power of women and girls circling our desks in the face of grief and fear?
CU: That moment in “Professor” was actually my reaction to a service we’d just had at the funeral home. The minister kept going on about this woman who he didn’t know, who he never knew, except he never talked about her, he talked about men. I was furious. She deserved better than that—she deserved to be remembered. So I took that moment and that anger and I put it in this story because, yes, I think a lot of people do relate to women’s suffering and pain through the words of men. And it’s not right.
I like that moment in “Teacher” where the girls circle their desks—it’s a moment that is just theirs, the boys have no part. It is a safe place for them. Even if they don’t always get along (can you imagine a group of grade-school girls always getting along?), here, in this moment, they are together for each other, they are sisters, they are safe.
CATHY ULRICH is the founding editor of Milk Candy Review, a journal of flash fiction. Her work has been published in various journals, including Black Warrior Review, Passages North, and Wigleaf and can be found in Best Microfiction 2019, Best Small Fictions 2019, and Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2017 and 2019. She lives in Montana with her daughter and various small animals.
KATE FINEGAN lives in Toronto. She is Editor-in-Chief of Longleaf Review and the author of The Size of Texas (Penrose Press, 2018). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Grist, Witness, Milk Candy Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Waxwing, The Puritan, Prism, The Fiddlehead, and elsewhere. You can find her at katefinegan.ink or on Twitter @kehfinegan.