Authors in Quarantine – Ursula Pflug

With this this series, I am hoping to capture how this cultural moment is affecting our speculative fiction authors and how our authors are surviving during the COVID-19 outbreak

Spec Can: What have you been up to during the COVID-19 outbreak?

Ursula Pflug: Folks have told me they feel as though they are living in one of my stories and there is a story in my third collection, Seeds and Other Stories, which has just gone to press, that’s about a pandemic.

Seeds is launching virtually on June 11 — it’s possible to register online in advance — please do. This book spans decades, it includes work that has appeared in award winning genre and literary publications in the US and the UK as well as at home in Canada. It’s my third collection and is coming out from Inanna, a Toronto scholarly and feminist press. The cover, which includes seeds and spaceships, is by Val Fullard who does all the Inanna covers. I know her from the old days in the Queen West scene in Toronto when she played in women’s bands with mutual friends. It’s one of my fave covers ever, and illustrates the cover story.

The pandemic story is called “Judy”, and was first published in 1983 in This Magazine, back when it was still edited by Lorraine Filyer. The first line is “That was the summer all the non smokers died”, and it follows a citizen scientist who stays up all night crunching data and then joins her roommates on the roof for a drink and to watch the sunrise. They’ve been there partying all night and mock her, just a little, but it’s her science that makes the correlations between smoking and survival. My husband is high risk not just because he’s over 65 but because he smokes and he was gratified when I told him about this surreal science fictional premise.

I spent the early days of lock down in copy-edits for this book, the usual fiddly and time consuming back and forth and it was actually a welcome relief because while the amazing Luciana Ricciutelli and I discussed whether hanafuda, liliko’i, poi, and wasabi should be italicized (yes, yes, yes, no) time went by during which I wasn’t, gratefully, thinking about Covid at all.

Spec Can: How are you adapting to social distancing?

Ursula Pflug: We spend a lot of time working at home together anyway so our life hasn’t appreciably changed. I lost an eight week spring workshop — I prefer classroom teaching to online teaching. I’ve been doing more mentoring by email, mainly for short stories and do feel free to get in touch if you’re interested — but I do miss socializing with other bodies. Sometimes I organize drop offs or pickups of car seats or plants with friends and neighbours just so we can chat in the yard for a while. A good friend in Victoria has organized a weekly Happy Hour on Zoom for members of the electronic arts community and that has now become something we look forward to.

I felt shamed by all the baking pics on social media and made muffins. The muffins were good, but I gave up baking for a reason. Not so the victory garden. I’ve been an avid organic vegetable gardener for decades but in the last few years cut back, largely because our raised beds have gone feral and now are filled with jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), used in traditional indigenous medicine as an antidote to poison ivy. It’s beloved by pollinators — enough reason to not rip it out so I can give the beds back to tomatoes. Instead, we’re building new ones. We plan to fill them by the ancient method of Hügelkultur or hill culture. It’s a permaculture method hailing from Germany and Eastern Europe that no one here had ever heard of but which now shows up in our feeds not quite as often as sourdough but close. I’m only a little smug about being able to pronounce it properly. We are putting more time and effort into resusitating the garden than in recent years and glad of it. For one thing, we will be able to share with friends and neighbours who are living exclusively on their CERB. 

I’ve been on the Sunburst Award jury for short fiction. I stepped in as one of the jury members dropped out when the reading period had already begun. My wonderful fellow jurors were Sarah Tolmie and Omar el Akkad and we had interesting video chats — Portland, Toronto, Peterborough. I lobbied for WhatsApp, so dead simple you’re unlikely to say embarassing things in a livestream to Facebook from Zoom meeting as I have in fact recently done. Your friends, family and colleagues will love you once they have used it for the first time. We have an amazing Sunburst shortlist this year and the winning story is by a writer I hadn’t yet known which is always a delight. Stay tuned.

We’re both over 60 so we’re not really supposed to go to the store unless we go from 7- 8 a.m. However morning brain, as I call it to Doug, is the time during which one which can most efficiently edit so I’m not going to waste it sanitizing my hands and wandering the  aisles while trying to remember not to touch the cans. As well as being in the semi-retired demographic a lot of our friends are wildcrafters. We figure, if you don’t want to go to the store, you can go outside and pick dinner. Today it will be day lily sprouts, a first for me. Staying healthy isn’t based only on social distancing and hand washing, important as these are, but also on what you put in your body and wild foods will boost your immune system more than spaghetti. Trent Hills Homegrown Hamper delivers prepared meals from The Bakery in Warkworth and we have almost grown tired of their amazing Shepherd’s Pie. 

I read The Plague by Albert Camus. It was possibly rec’d online by Sang Kim who like me is a Camus fan. I read a digital library copy from Overdrive. This book was startling as it describes, note for note, what we are going through — quarantine, both fudged and effective official responses, the scramble for vaccines, hardworking medical staff, community solidarity, tragic losses, the effects of separation. It was published in ’47 and is considered an allegory for the occupation of France. As a description of an epidemic it’s eerily familiar. Not for the faint of heart but brilliant and startling for its echoes.

There’s a 6 k walk on the side roads around my village and I do it almost every day, Covid or not. I get ideas but mostly I clear my head. There are more people out walking now; we wave and stay on our own sides of the road. And I observe birds, even though I’m not really a birder. There are often ravens fluttering around the hydro poles, and on the fence of one of the farms there is a sign which reads, Raven Predation Project Participant. Me being me I had to find out what raven predation was so I went home and looked it up. The raven predation project is a Ministry of Agriculture initiative. Apparently ravens will prey on livestock, pecking out the eyeballs of living sheep and other animals. Now when I come home Doug says, “I see you foiled the ravens and still have your eyeballs.” I am not making this up. If I was a horror writer I would use it but I’m not. Go ahead and you’re welcome.

Shameless self promotion for June 11 virtual book launch:

https://www.crowdcast.io/e/inanna-booklaunch1/register

Join us for a virtual evening of readings and revelry featuring Lisa Braxton, author of The Talking Drum, Paul Butler, author of Mina’s Child, April Ford, author of Carousel, Rebecca Luce-Kapler, author of The Negation of Chronology: Imagining Geraldine Moodie, and Ursula Pflug, author of Seeds and Other Stories. Books discounted for event, Author Q & A & more! https://www.inanna.ca/


Ursula Pflug is author or editor of ten novels, novellas, edited anthologies and story collections. Her fiction has appeared in Canada, the US and the UK, in award winning genre and literary publications including Lightspeed, Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Postscripts, Leviathan, Now Magazine and Bamboo Ridge. Her books have been endorsed by Jeff VanderMeer, Tim Wynne-Jones, Candas Jane Dorsey, Charles DeLint, Mathew Cheney, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Heather Spears and others. Her short stories have been taught in universities in Canada and India, and she has collaborated extensively with filmmakers, playwrights, choreographers and installation artists. Her fiction has won small press awards abroad and been a finalist for the Aurora, ReLit and KM Hunter Awards as well as the 3 Day Novel and Descant Novella Contests at home. Pflug’s work has been funded by The Ontario Arts Council, the Canada Council for the Arts and The Laidlaw Foundation. A new reprint collection, Seeds, is forthcoming in May. (Photo Credit Andy Carroll).

Interviewed by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

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