Thursday, July 13, 2023

Q&A with Cathy Ulrich




Cathy Ulrich is the author of the new story collection Small, Burning Things. She also has written the story collection Ghosts of You. She lives in Montana.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in your new collection? 

A: I’m not actually great at keeping track of time, but it looks like the oldest stories were published in 2015 or so, and the newer pieces were published just last year, so I’ve been working on these stories for seven years!  


Q: The writer Kim Magowan said of the book, “Menacing, fanciful, and bizarre, SMALL, BURNING THINGS is a dazzling book by one of our most gifted and original writers working today.” What do you think of that description? 


A: I think I’m so lucky that Kim thinks so highly of me and this collection! She is such a talented, accomplished writer, and it means a lot to hear this kind praise from her. And I love the juxtaposition of menacing and fanciful — it does seem to me a lot of these stories are one or the other, or perhaps even both at times. 


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you? 


A: When I was considering this collection, I knew I wanted the — for lack of a better term — human combustion stories to play a large role in it. So I had the idea of the burning and the fire even as I was putting everything together.


And because most of the stories in the collection are rather “small” (there’s quite a few micro-sized nuggets; more so than in my first collection), I had that in mind as well.


When I finally had the idea of “small, burning things” for the collection title, I did sneak it as a phrase into a story that I intended to include. So the stories are small, and for me, there is something burning in all of them — even if not as overtly as in the “burning girl” stories. 


Q: How did you decide on the order in which the stories would appear in the collection? 


A: I knew I wanted to open with “A Burning Girl” and close with “A Burning Girl (ii).” The rest was kind of a mix and match of “do I want similarly-themed stories next to each other or not?”


A few of the pieces that I consider “sister stories” were paired, like the two “robot girl” stories, or a pair of stories that I’ve always thought were about the same characters.


There is kind of an overarching theme, again, of burning, but there are stories that play off one anther thematically or slide easily from one to the other via theme. 


All this to say, it was a bit haphazard, but there was intent behind it! 


Q: What are you working on now? 

A: Right now, I’m working on a story that’s kind of about Eleanor Mills, but I’m leaving (mostly) Edward Hall out of it. (For those who aren’t familiar with the Hall-Mills case, it’s an unsolved murder from a hundred years ago that garnered a lot of headlines back in the day, and featured a so-called witness known as “The Pig Woman” [she is also not in the story] whose recollection of what she’d “seen” changed depending on her audience.) 

As usual for me, I’m focusing on Eleanor (but of course it’s not really Eleanor Mills, it’s not her at all) rather than on the mystery of the case itself. I’d make a terrible detective; I’m much more interested in what people were, who people were, than finding out “whodunit.”


(Though I must admit, in real life, knowing three murder victims personally, I am relieved that two of the killers were caught [one died in prison], and one committed suicide. At least they can’t hurt anyone else.) 


Q: Anything else we should know? 


A: Yes! Silent film star Florence Lawrence invented windshield wipers (not the version we use now, but still!) and I think that’s just such an interesting thing for everyone to know. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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