Fantastic Metropolis

An Interview with Ursula Pflug

Timothy J. Anderson

Timothy J. Anderson: You’ve been seeing your short fiction published over the past 23 years. What do you think people expect from an Ursula Pflug story?

Ursula Pflug: I think Glenn Grant got it right in the Tor anthology Northern Suns which he co-edited with David Hartwell. It’s a reprint anthology of Canadian speculative stories; “Bugtown” was originally published in Transversions, the excellent magazine Sally McBride and Dale Sproule founded, which is sadly no longer in existence due to all the usual reasons. Glenn said, and I’m paraphrasing here as I lent out my copy, that my stories often took place in grim environments, their characters facing both inner despair and despair caused by circumstance, but that the miraculous would then enter in, often in small ways, lending grace to both the characters’ lives and their surroundings. I think that’s a fair description of what I do. I could go on to say that the darkness in my stories is an attempt to deal with the dark in the world that it reflects. I’m not happy with my head in the sand. “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,” and so on. But there is always joy; it’s a poetic dancing in the rubble mentality that many of my characters assume, often aiding their chances of survival.

Timothy J. Anderson: In Green Music affiliate link, where many of your stories come together, the suicidal Marina flirts with “dancing in the rubble” and it doesn’t help her. Or does it? In science fiction, people are often victims of external forces, although their downfall may be due to their own flaws. Would it be fair to say Ursula Pflug turns this on its head — that her protagonists are victims of internal forces and given the opportunity for victory by the external world?

Ursula Pflug: I think Marina is a victim of external circumstance. She doesn’t like the world as it is, much, and isn’t able to numb herself very efficiently. Whether this is a gift or a character flaw is open to interpretation. I think there are people like this, and that we need to listen to them. Being a person who can triumph over their environment doesn’t necessarily make one the best repair worker. Marina wants things fixed, not to have herself fixed in such a way that she can muddle obliviously through life, which is what she sees most people as doing.

Timothy J. Anderson: The world of your stories is at once commonplace and fantastical. How does that relate to the way you experience the world?

Ursula Pflug: That is the way I experience the world. I think the magical intersects with the mundane on a daily basis. Frankly I’d prefer a bit more of the fantastical, especially in the technology department. A flying carpet or a teleporter would be nice, especially as I don’t drive.

Timothy J. Anderson: The assumption of magic by children is a recurring theme in literature of the fantastic, and your stories are no exception. What kinds of magic did you possess as a child — and is it hereditary in any way?

Ursula Pflug: The answer would have to be the doors and windows to other worlds. Every time we see our world from a new perspective, it’s as if we’ve entered another dimension, and when we’re very small we’re quite happy to experience these transpositions as literal — it makes them quite a bit more exciting. The scene in Green Music where Marina describes to Danny the time machine she and her sister built as children — that’s one of two or three snippets of more or less literal autobiography in the book. My mother painted doors and windows, including elements of surrealism, or magic realism. One well known painting, entitled “Kitchen Door With Ursula,” looks from the interior of a kitchen out into a winter landscape. But in the reflection of the open door’s glass a little girl sits reading — and the reflected landscape is a springtime one. People don’t see it right away, and when they do they’re startled and pleased. My daughter is a poet and this sense of a slightly shifted reality also infuses her work.

I think I’m part poet in my use of language; my dialogue has been heavily influenced by writing for the theatre. There’s often several layers of meaning in my stories, with a tendency to veer towards the esoteric. Again, I think that reflects the way I experience life; on many levels simultaneously. This layered quality is something I try to describe in my work. Occasionally editors will try and have me pull a few threads, finding there are too many, and while there may be insight here I resist this as I personally prefer a sense of woven mystery when I’m reading and think there must be others out there who feel the same. Extremely structured uni-levelled plots often bore me to tears.

Timothy J. Anderson: Who, then, are your models? [And, if you dare, who is guilty of boring you to tears?] Who do you derive pleasure from as a reader? In what ways are you different from them?

Ursula Pflug: I wasn’t able to read Dune, ever. I don’t think I’ve looked at a fantasy trilogy other than rereading Tolkien since the British “The Five Children and It” series by Edith Nesbit we read as children. It’s a question of personal taste, and very subjective; if someone reads Stephen King and nothing else that’s entirely their business, and in any case writers like King will always do much better than an esoteric story teller such as myself. I just reread Dhalgren and found it held up very well. Would it be published today, submitted by an unknown? It’s experimental in so many ways. I’ve done a Read and Appreciated List for FM where I mention many books I’ve loved and these include: Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets, Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi, The Glass Bead Game, Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. These were all published as literary mainstream, although each one is speculative fiction, and I think I’m well-positioned in that category, if it even is one. I read a lot of William Burroughs when I was young. His time travel is subjective — he doesn’t write about machines, but how it would feel, the loneliness of being uprooted, which was very interesting to me. One of my favourite SF books is Maureen F. McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang. When you’re starting out you imitate what you’ve loved consciously or unconsciously but later on it’s much more important and exciting to develop your own voice. The writers I’ve mentioned are very different from one another, beyond all having mastered a literary spec fic thing. The specific ways in which I’m different from them? — I think someone else would have to answer that.

Timothy J. Anderson: What do you see as the “typical” fantasy/speculative writer career path, and how does it mesh with the path your career has taken?

Ursula Pflug: I don’t know much about what other people do. Most people who write for print are, at least financially, in a bit of a mug’s game. Is it really a career or just a collection of clever party tricks? Publishing books or writing for theatre might impress the hell out of a lot people, but these activities don’t pay rent very effectively, except for spiritual rent. I know it’s important to me to work with people who don’t think in boxes. It’s what I look for and have been lucky enough to find. That may be a speculative writer’s mindset, I don’t know.

Timothy J. Anderson: Ursula, you’ve done a fair amount of history-based writing. How has that influenced your fiction?

Ursula Pflug: It’s given me a break from invented worlds. I enjoy the research process quite a bit. The spillover is that I’m quite willing now to read massive amounts of text in support of something I want to include, or to interview people, which I may not have done before. Earlier I was most interested in capturing the qualities of dream, and of certain kinds of subjective states. I wanted to craft contemporary fairy tales. I haven’t lost interest in this, it’s just I now see research as a stream of information I can draw on to support that process.

Timothy J. Anderson: Dreams, both sleeping and waking, are an essential element of many of your stories. What is the dream life of Ursula Pflug?

Ursula Pflug: I’ve been a dreamer all my life. I’m always a little alarmed when people tell me they don’t dream. Everyone dreams; many just don’t remember. There are many vivid dreams I remember from childhood and think of till this day. My mother had a dream about a fantastical wedding which she described in a letter, I think to my father. It’s included in a published archival booklet; I was astounded to discover it, as I realised I’d had a variation of the same dream, which I attempted to make into a story. It’s never been published although I read it at ClitLit, novelist Elizabeth Ruth’s reading series in Toronto. One morning my daughter came down the stairs and told me yet another slight variation of this same dream. So there you go-three generations of the same dream-what can this possibly mean? For years when I was much younger I had lengthy lucid dreams, real as life, where I learned the trick of control, which was both startling and fun. The process is discussed at length in Richard Linklater’s charming animated feature film, Waking Life, as well, of course, as in Green Music. Lately I’ve thought a lot about a dream I had around twenty years ago. Standing in a razed city full of panicking people, I was airlifted out by some clever and witty space aliens who spoke a telepathy-based language I’d had the luck to learn. Unfortunately they could only rescue people who’d learned-people who couldn’t communicate in this way fritzed their fourth dimensional technology, making their ships unable to fly. I remember the modality of the language quite well-it was a combination of transmitted images and emotions. There were words too-both transmitted, received and spoken, but far fewer words than we use now. It seemed a much more complete form of communication. We flew over the suburbs, landing in the backyards of ranch-style houses. There’d be gleeful children jumping up and down inside, looking out at us through their patio doors. They wanted us to take them for a ride, and were fluent, so we could.

Timothy J. Anderson: Some authors put themselves in their work, either as cameo characters or in the form of the protagonists they wish they were. Where would a reader look for Ursula to appear? Has she? Will she?

Ursula Pflug: I read an interview in Fireweed some years back with the German film director Margarethe von Trotta wherein she said she was all her characters. I will visualise a character along with their back story which may or may not show up in the text, but when building their responses I might look inside myself. I’ll ask myself: what has happened to me in the past that’s similar to what this character is going through? — then I can base their response in part on this memory. It’s a bit like method acting. A character is then logically an extrapolation of some part of the writer, however small. A beneficial spinoff of writing this way is that it’s an opportunity to learn about ourselves; in the end we have, really, only our own experience to draw from. In Green Music, I can identify with each character — they’re all a part of me. Writing is so much smaller than life in that sense. People have asked whether I’m Su or Marina, when in actuality I have so much in common with Stiv!

Timothy J. Anderson: Are there particular ideologies or personal philosophies which you hope come through in your writing?

Ursula Pflug: I’d say that would be my reiteration of Marina’s interface with the world, and also the idea that is present in a lot of magic realism, which is that magic is created out of necessity, often political necessity. As an analogy, I could bring back dreams. Many people who learn to fly in their dreams do so at first in the presence of danger. For me it was a tiger, cliche as it may seem. Steven founded Marina, implausible as it was, because he had to-it was important to create an alternative community as balance: a counterweight to the misery on Earth-a place where there was less cause for despair. Likewise, I never described how Jack was able to swim to the moon and back; he did it because he had to. He studied with the moon, and what he learned from her were teachings he could bring back to Earth, and to Marina-The-Place, so that both could go on, at least a little while longer. When we forge doors to other realities which are linked to our own, we create the possibility of another way of being. If a different kind of world is possible somewhere else, then it might be possible here as well. If we can only get there, we might be able to bring some of it back. But we must be able to imagine it first.

Copyright © 2003 by Timothy J. Anderson.