Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Cathy Ulrich
The Fiction Editors, Rappahannock Review: In discussing this piece, we talked a lot about various authors who had similar surreal, almost macabre voices in their work. Did you have any particular influences when writing “Your Sister’s Children Always Disappear”?
Cathy Ulrich: There are so many amazing writers who have influenced my work. I love the fairy-tale quality of Rebecca Harrison’s stories, the stunning way Lori Sambol-Brody expresses longing, how Gen Del Raye lays his characters’ emotions bare.
As for this specific piece, I wouldn’t say there was any particular writer that influenced the style — although I had just read Alina Stefanescu’s “Fetus with a Special Purpose” in the New Orleans Review, so that got me thinking about mothers and children and loss.
RR: When writing pieces like “Your Sister’s Children Always Disappear” that have serious and tragic elements, does the process affect you emotionally? If so, how do you work through it and finish the story?
CU: For a short piece like “Your Sister’s Children Always Disappear,” while I do feel sympathy for the characters and their suffering, I haven’t spent so much time with them that they feel like family, not like I would with a longer, novel-sized piece. So I can write them in this miserable situation pretty clinically.
Also, I really like the sister’s optimism — I think she’s a stronger person than I am, especially given her circumstances. In a way, I guess I’m thinking: “She’s tough. She’s handling this.” That gives me an easy out as the jerk who put her in this situation!
RR: In “Your Sister’s Children Always Disappear,” the speaker’s sister has a love for her disappearing children that seems almost surreal. You capture feelings of a surreal love in a few of your other short stories as well, such as “A Pitcher Like You,” “This Is His Wife,” and “Your Stepfather, the Giraffe.” How have your own perceptions of love, or cultural stereotypes of love more broadly, informed your writing?
CU: A “surreal love,” I like that. I’m very interested in unusual forms of love. The character in “A Pitcher Like You,” for example, is loosely based on Erika Eiffel, who married the Eiffel Tower. In high school, she was an archer in a relationship with her bow. She was a world-class athlete, so it must have been a good relationship! I find her to be an interesting person, with the way she’s like: “I don’t care what the rest of you think. I love who (or what) I love.” And that’s great. Love doesn’t always have to be two beautiful people making eyes at each other on the CW (although that’s fine, too, in its own way).
In my own work, I like to focus on the different kinds of love out there, not just the heroine and the hero leaning in for a kiss as the picture fades. That story’s already being told (and told better than I could possibly tell it), so why not tell stories about different kinds of love?
RR: Something I noticed in not just this work, but in many of yours, is that you often won’t give characters names. They are given titles (like “The Former Yo-Yo World Champion”) in some stories but a name isn’t always present in the narrative. Why is that?
CU: Well, you’ve caught me! It’s kind of an open secret that I have a real issue with names. I was adopted as an infant, and my birth mother had named me Kristin. Sometimes I wonder if I’d be a different person if I’d stayed a Kristin, you know?
Names have a lot of power. There have been studies that show people can’t recognize different shades of color until the shades are given a name. So until you name it “Eggshell” or “Ivory” or “Seashell,” it was all just “White.”
In a lot of creation myths, nothing really comes into being until it’s given a name. That’s an incredible amount of power! So I’m a bit of a coward about giving names to my characters. It’s safer to just call them the thing that they are. And I feel like if I give certain characters names, then they’ll be weighted down by the readers’ expectations of what a “Clarence” or a “Miriam” is like. A title, like “The Former Yo-Yo World Champion” is loaded with expectation, but it’s more under my control.
RR: You also practice humor writing, as shown on your blog “Hollywood Hates Me.” How do you find the balance between humor and solemnity in your fiction?
CU: The truth is, I can’t write a funny story. I don’t know why that is. I can throw some humor in here and there, some moments of absurdity (like “here’s a frostbitten toe for you since your babies are always disappearing!”), but if I try to write a funny story, it just doesn’t work. For my blog, I’ve developed a comedic persona — you might notice the voice on my blog and the voice in my stories is very different (at least, I think so!) — so that makes it easier to sustain the humorous feel throughout my blog posts.
Balancing humor and solemnity — that’s, I guess, just really writing about how life is, isn’t it? It’s so funny, but at the same time it’s so very sad. You can’t laugh all the time, but you can’t cry all the time either. You have to find that balance.
Cathy Ulrich’s work in Issue 4.2: