An interview with Ursula Pflug
by Derek Newman-Stille
Derek Newman-Stille, Ursula Pflug, and Leah Bobet (left to right) at The Cat Sass Reading Series
I am very excited that Ursula Pflug was willing to do an interview here on Speculating Canada…. and not just because she complements me several times in this interview (thank you Ursula, I am honoured). I have wanted to interview Ms. Pflug since I read her bio and found out that she was living in my own town, Peterborough Ontario. I hope you enjoy the interview she has given here on Speculating Canada.
Spec Can: To start this interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?
Ursula Pflug: I was born in Tunisia to German parents; my mother, sister and I immigrated when I was a pre-schooler. We lived in my grandmother’s basement in Downsview before my father came from Tunis to join us and we rented a flat above a store on Yonge Street in downtown Toronto. My parents spoke French and German at home so I didn’t speak English when I started school. I remember a friend patiently trying to explain how I was interchanging mouse for mouth. My sister and I were close both in age and by temperament. We were nerdy readers who survived by writing and drawing and inventing time machines in the sandy alleyway behind the church. My parents were painters, my father was also a doctor; he had to re-do his North African residency at TGH before he could practice here; for many years we lived on his intern’s income and my mother’s CC grants.
There were often friends over for dinner and discussions regularly included snippets about Rosa Luxemburg, Kafka, Burroughs and Ginsburg, and of course visual artists from Europe and North America, both historical and contemporary. The older I get the more I (somewhat belatedly) become aware of how materialist our culture actually is; I think I was protected from this understanding because of the emphasis my parents put on creative and intellectual pursuits to the exclusion of almost everything else.
I attended the Ontario College of Art and the University of Toronto but I also travelled widely and that was perhaps more formative. I lived on my own as a teenager in both Hawai’i and in New York City, for a year in each. I met my husband, the new media sculptor Doug Back when I wrote about his early work for Now Magazine, where I had an occasional column about art in the early 80’s. I was a self taught graphic designer and that was my day job before we moved out of the city although I had been publishing short stories for awhile.
Doug and I decided to rent part of my father’s farmhouse in Dummer Township when we started a family—coincidentally, as it happened. I didn’t know the area well, but the year before I’d participated in the first SF Ink workshop at Peter Robinson College, a workshop facilitated by Judith Merril who lived, as we did, near College and Spadina. We drove up with Judith as we didn’t have a car and afterwards stayed in touch. At the workshop I shared scenes which later became parts of The Alphabet Stones.
Eleven years later Doug and I bought a house in the village of Norwood. It’s a century brick, backing onto conservation land and the Ouse River. The Ouse in England was the river Virginia Woolf drowned herself in. It’s always seemed fitting that I live beside a river with such a literary name. I’ve grown attached to living in the woods surrounded by trees, rivers and wildlife. Eastern Ontario has seeped into my bones something fierce and been a big influence on my work.
The Peterborough arts community was very welcoming to us. Doug chaired the board at Artspace for a time and I worked for many years in theatre. I had several plays produced or funded by professional companies, including Susan Spicer’s Writers’ Workshop, the late Rhonda Payne’s Riverbank Productions and 4th Line Theatre. I was part of SEASKUM, a feminist comedy troupe that was active in the 90’s. I teach night school at Loyalist College and have met some amazing people doing that. I’ve also grown a big vegetable garden ever since we left the city and have been active in the food sovereignty movement.
Spec Can: What role can technology have in changing the future of our society?
Ursula Pflug: E-mail and search engines (there was life before Google, believe it or not) seemed magical at the outset, hard as that is to believe, now that it’s the bane of our existence. And, of course, there was the sudden ease of research. In Toronto we would go to the big Metro library on Yonge Street once a week with paper folders full of saved up questions. The internet created a change in many ways larger than the advent of the telephone. No one really saw it coming, Gibson and Ballard and Vernor Vinge notwithstanding; but the enormity of the change and how it impacted us wasn’t predicted or well-understood by social scientists. Anyone with access to the internet can get an education now—also, while history has always been written by the winners the web allows each of us to have our say.
My personal wish list for technological research includes larger investments in safe and green energy. We need to invest in research, in installations, and also in transmission and distribution infrastructure.
I backpacked across Japan in 2012 with my sister. We spoke to a gathering of Buddhist monks and peace workers from around the world in front of the A-Bomb dome in Hiroshima on the August 6 anniversary. The young Japanese people I spoke to explained how, to them, the disaster at Fukushima and the dropping of the bomb are in important respects the same. When your child or grandchild is dying of leukemia do you care whether it is because you were living near Hiroshima or Fukushima?
Sadako Sasaki folded into each of the thousand cranes she made her intense desire to live, to be free from illness. Decades later I wonder—is the A-Bomb disease leukemia, which we will be seeing in rising numbers in Japan yet again—or does our illness lie in believing we can only meet our energy needs by ransoming our children’s futures?
Spec Can: In what way can SF encourage readers to think in new and innovative ways?
Ursula Pflug: By breaking down the barriers of how we define reality, obviously.
The potential answers to that question are basically uncountable, which is cause for optimism. I think the answer we choose will depend on where our focus is, as readers and as writers. To illustrate, in my little sketch about Japan, I see the possibility for a story that includes the ancient art of origami, references to nuclear arms and nuclear power, and a theme of the collective desire for peace becoming powerful enough to catalyze real change.
I see a little girl in a hospital bed folding paper cranes, and how this simple poetic act had a ripple effect, influencing countless people. I think of the giant jellyfish that live in the Sea of Japan, and how the scientists studying them aren’t sure what their message to us is. I see a second character, the Vietnam veteran we met who was with Veterans for Peace—he had been part of a summer long group walk that included stops at all the nuclear installations in Japan, ending in Hiroshima on the anniversary. The speculative element will be to include a trans-temporal and trans-species link, some kind of conversation between Sadako and this man, and the giant jellyfish in the Sea of Japan. Here are images, rich and poetic, which could become a story. I’m a writing teacher, so that is where I begin, is with the elements of story. Anything can happen, and at the beginning of telling the story we have no idea what that anything will be. No matter how detailed our preliminary outline is, as writers we may still deviate—our characters often turn out to have minds of their own. So—for me, any story can encourage readers to think in new ways. Perhaps visualizing new technology, or describing systems of magic that allow us to see ourselves as multi-dimensional beings living in a multi-dimensional universe—or, as I have done here, to imagine trans-temporal interspecies communication—such things may be more specific to science fiction and fantasy than to mainstream.
Spec Can: How can SF help readers to question social messages and ideas that are taken-for-granted?
Ursula Pflug: Some very wonderful and successful speculative fictions have been published as mainstream in recent years, such as Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, to name just a few. These books are genre books by any other name. Before it was picked up by Tesseract Books, my first novel, Green Music was turned down by (among others) Shelly Shapiro at Del Rey. She told me to try Four Walls, Eight Windows. 4W8W did publish genre writers including Shepard, Butler, Doctorow, Rucker and so on but it wasn’t exclusively a genre press. Shapiro told me genre was actually a very conservative publishing scene, which made me sad as SF was sold to us as the literature of ideas.
Russel Smith just commented in the G and M that SF will include thought provoking ideas and narratives (he included Gibson here) but be written in a conventional style, and postmodern literary writers will experiment stylistically but their themes will follow convention. Why, he asks, must this be so? I have been told it’s because the ideas are challenging in SF and so we must write conventional plots and sentences so as not to inordinately challenge our readers, but isn’t that a bit condescending? And in any case Mitchell proves it’s possible to do both in the same book.
Given how much genre work is socially conservative and “stodgy in its style,” to quote Smith, then we may at times have more luck breaking down the barriers of how we define reality if we read speculative novels published as mainstream.
I’ve gone off on a tangent here—discussing style rather than content but it’s something I think about a fair bit.
At its best, speculative fiction, whether it’s science fiction, fantasy, horror, slipstream or anything else, allows us, both as readers and writers, a larger canvas. We can draw outside the lines. As a younger reader I was struck by how LeGuin’s iconic early novels The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness challenged received notions about class and gender.
Spec Can: What is unique about Canadian SF from that of other nations?
Ursula Pflug: I was on a panel at Anticipation with Nalo Hopkinson, Karl Schroeder and Bob Boyzcuk which used a quote from David Ketterer’s 1992 book Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy as its starting point. I bought a used hardcover on Amazon and really enjoyed filling in some gaps in my knowledge of the early history of Canadian SF. We need more books like his, and yes, that’s a hint. Unfortunately I can’t find the Ketterer book or my notes! I do remember that one of the things I did to prep for the panel was to read some introductions to the Tesseracts series. 1999’s Tesseracts 8 (in which—shameless hype alert—I had two stories) was edited by Candas Jane Dorsey and John Clute. In his introductory essay Clute remarks, “What came through in many of the stories we eventually selected was not, what excited my own exilic nerve endings, was not loneliness (loneliness is the lowest form of exile) but solitude: the solitude of the prairie gaze upon multitudinousness, the solitude of the bullet hit, the task of seeing undertaken.”
I’d like to posit that seeing requires an ability for solitude and introspection.
“Canadian writing in particular,” Clute says, “has retained an anticipatory hush, an island solitude, a willingness to queue for the epiphany to come.”
That made me laugh, the image of Canadians lining up for an epiphany. Take a number.
Spec Can: You have been a great supporter of the author community. In what way can others encourage the development of community among authors and support authors?
Ursula Pflug: One way we can help our fellow authors is by writing reviews of their work. Since the big dailies aren’t reviewing much we tend as authors to post reviews on GoodReads or LibraryThing. I post on Goodreads but almost all my reviews there have been previously published in places like Strange Horizons, The NYRSF, The Peterborough Examiner, The Link, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and other places. Some of the best known Canadian literary magazines are Descant, Malahat, Prism, Prairie Fire, Room and The Fiddlehead but there are dozens of others. Magazines Canada maintains an online list of literary journals. Almost if not all of these run a few reviews at the back. Some editors assign reviews or they are done in-house but others welcome reviews from freelancers and some even pay. Review credits are good publication credits to have. As writers we often complain that we’re not reviewed enough but if we’re not reviewing our peers can we really complain? Usually it’s a lot faster and easier to write a review than a short story, after all. I was particularly happy when I wrote for publications south of the border, helping to boost recognition of Canadians.
I organize a reading series in my village at Cat Sass Coffeehouse. We’ve hosted amazing authors, both emerging and established, locals and folks on tour. We’ve had a ton of fun but it’s been more of a time sink than I’d anticipated, (silly me) partly because we went after Canada Council funding for our authors. I’m very grateful to be able to support the community in this way (it’s a little known fact that writers need to eat like other people) but the CC application process is unwieldy and time consuming. The Writers Union, however, has a one page application form for hosting member readings. There is an administration fee which I wish they’d drop—we pay it out of a donations jar. You can talk a cafe in your town into hosting an author from the other side of the country and TWUC will pay part of the travel expenses as well as a reading fee. Hosting authors doesn’t have to be a huge deal and is a lot of fun—for example the Hastings Village Library hosts one writer a year; they just had Jane Urquhart in, talking about landscape and architecture. Anyone can do this. The host need not be a Union member, just the invited reader. Who wants to invite me to Vancouver to read in 2014? The applications for next year aren’t closed yet.
Spec Can: What do you hope readers will take away from reading your short stories and novels?
Ursula Pflug: I want people to be given more tools for breaking down the ways in which they define reality. I keep going back to your tagline, Derek, but I do think you’ve nailed it so nicely.
Katelyn Shoop was writing about my Tightrope Books story collection After the Fires in the Danforth Review when she said my narratives “began to interrogate the reader’s sense of reality.”
Almost the same words!
As well, a lot my work is a little cerebral and artsy, and that will only ever appeal to some. However, as a person who has fallen in love with so many artsy writers, I know that without books like Bruno Schulz’s The Street of the Crocodiles I would have been a lonelier and more closed-minded person. Russel Smith, discussing Munro’s Nobel win in the G and M, said, “the contempoorary short story is too damn artsy for mass popularity. It’s a form closer to poetry than to novels.”
So there you go.
Spec Can: Your writing style is very poetic. What has influenced the development of your poetic style of expression?
Ursula Pflug: I’ve published a few prose poems in places like Star*line, Rampike, and Stone Telling and won small press awards for a couple of them. At some time in my life I’d like to focus on the form a little more. Till recently I haven’t even read that much poetry— but nowadays you can catch me poring over a dual language Neruda before bed, pretending my Spanish is improving.
I was a big fan of William Burroughs when I was in my late teens and early twenties and he is a very poetic writer. I remember reading a section of Cities of the Red Night, or maybe it was one of the others in that trilogy, in which Burroughs described a character’s time travel experience. It gave me shivers and I realized he had given me a subjective experience of time travel and not just a description of the externals, including semi-plausible science and gadgetry, interesting as that might be. I understood that for me as a reader, that was a much more moving and powerful experience. It’s interesting because I wrote this before you pointed out that The Alphabet Stones allows the reader to feel what it is like to question reality, to wonder whether she is experiencing the world of the fey or losing her mind. The moments we are most moved by as readers stay with us and influence us as writers, even though most often we’re not aware of the influence when we write.
Spec Can: Many of your stories revolve around the subject of magic. What can reading about magic do for audiences?
Cover photo of The Alphabet Stones courtesy of Ursula Pflug
Ursula Pflug: When we read about magic are we escaping or are we expanding our notions of what is possible? Doing so always offers hope. They needn’t cancel each other out—both can be true, even simultaneously. Tim Powers once answered the question by saying that magic supplies us with extra dimensions. He didn’t mean it literally; he meant it conceptually. If naturalistic fiction takes place in two dimensions, the moment we add a reality bending element we’re adding an extra dimension. There is more room to play as an author and more room to play as a thinker and reader. This is true of science fiction as well and I think whether we like magic or extrapolated science is largely a matter of taste.
Spec Can: Why does the topic of magic appeal to readers so much?
Ursula Pflug: Immersing ourselves in secondary worlds can provide relief from care as they are so far from our own reality—and reading about magic can open our minds.
Spec Can: Is there anything further that you would like to add to this interview?
Ursula Pflug: I’d like to thank you for all that you do, and to congratulate you on your Aurora Award.
I want to thank Ursula Pflug for all of these brilliant insights and for giving us some new techniques to support Canadian SF authors. As always, Ms. Pflug’s writing provides new ways of thinking and new ways of viewing the world.