Finding the Voices: An Interview with Cathy Ulrich

Cathy Ulrich’s story collection, Ghosts of You, published by Okay Donkey Press, hums with the chatter of forgotten women. Ulrich creates a creeping resonance through the details that make these characters rise above their deaths, their fabricated plot devices to dazzle us with their humanity. Ulrich uses the magic of language, her skill with repetition to awake our empathy.

Dean: I’ve read several of these stories online in literary journals and magazines, but now that they’re collected, I didn’t realize you had written so many! What was the first story you wrote? Was it the first one that was published? What inspired you to keep coming back to this theme and subject matter? When did you start to think that maybe this would be a book?

Ulrich: The first story is the first in the collection, “Being the Murdered Girl.” It was written at least a year before the second was written and, yes, the first one published! (It was in the lovely Crab Fat Magazine in – don’t hold me to this, but I think 2015?)

It wasn’t written intended to be anything more than a stand-alone story, and I actually didn’t think about it for a while after it was published, until I read an article about Joan Vollmer (she was married to William S. Burroughs, he shot her in the face) and was inspired to write the second story, “Being the Murdered Wife.”

It wasn’t until the third story, “Being the Murdered Lover” that I realized this was going to be a series (like the “Japan” stories), and that they were all going to have the same title and opening sentence and point of view.

What inspires me to keep coming back to this theme and subject matter is, often, rage. I had never even heard of Joan Vollmer before I read this article, but everyone has heard of Burroughs! She was completely erased in service of his legacy — and that happens a lot, I think. So I will see something in the news or in fiction about a woman being erased, and it will “inspire” me.

I never really thought it would be a book until it became a book! It’s kind of unbelievable for me.

Dean: Your readers have been asking when you’d have a book out for a while now, and then we were happily surprised when you announced you were publishing a collection of your “Murdered Girls” stories with Okay Donkey. This is there first full-length publication. How did all of this transpire?

Ulrich: I was incredibly lucky — the editors at Okay Donkey reached out to me and said they were interested in starting a press and wanted their first publication to be a chapbook of the Murdered Ladies series. It turned out, though, that I had written about twice as many pieces (at that point!) as they realized, so it ended up being a full-length collection instead of a chapbook!

I’m just so grateful that this is something they wanted to do. I hope it will be just the beginning of a great publishing career for them!

Dean: When writing this series, were you ever worried about writing too close to a trope?

Ulrich: Actually, that’s not something that really crossed my mind! Tropes are tropes for a reason — there are a finite number of stories in the world. What isn’t finite is the ways people tell them. I have my own way of telling stories that I think, especially in this case, where I’m kind of subverting tropes, that works really well for what I’m doing.

Dean: How did you create such specific details for each woman, each side character? The concept of each story may be the same, but each character is idiosyncratic, each story is different because of your attention to detail! How many of these details were in the original drafts? How many of them were found during revision?

Ulrich: That’s not really something I think about either, actually. The characters are with me from the moment I start writing their story, so the details kind of come along naturally. There might be some finessing in the end, but the characters are there from the beginning and so are the details that make them real.

I will admit there are a few Murdered Ladies stories that have been put aside because I lost the character or couldn’t create her completely — I think this is because I didn’t have enough feeling for the character I was writing to make them real. Hopefully, someday I will be able to come back to those stories and set the characters free.

Dean: Do you think death reveals us, shows the world who we are? Or are we always a mystery?

Ulrich: Oh, absolutely death makes us even more mysterious — while I’m here, now, I can maybe correct some assumptions that people might make about me, or do something that makes people think, “oh, that’s what she’s like.” Once I’m dead, I haven’t got any say anymore in how people see me. I will be, like the characters in these stories, recreated the way people need for me to be recreated.

I think it’s true of every death, like you see in obituaries “loved by all who knew her,” but how often is that really true? I’ll bet some people despised her. I’ll bet some people saw her coming and made their excuses and left. But her family wants to remember as beloved. And so they do.

But it’s especially true of murder victims, because so many people outside of family become “invested” in their death. They need to create a story for themselves to understand what happened, or to feel like they understand.

A friend of mine was murdered when I worked at the local newspaper, and the reporters all had their theories on what he had done to deserve it. They needed to do that for themselves, they needed to talk about his murder like he had somehow caused it, somehow deserved it. Because if a murder victim isn’t somehow complicit in their own death, then couldn’t any of us be killed?

At any rate, I had to tell a lot of people to shut the hell up about my dead friend when I was around! (Ha!)

Dean: Another trope you’ve managed to subvert is that most of the murders are never solved. What intrigued you about not solving the murders? Does this say something about our larger world? The way women are treated by society, our American culture?

Ulrich: In the real world, a lot of murders go unsolved! And the truth is, I just didn’t want to focus on that. I think some of the murders in the Murdered Ladies do get solved (as a matter of fact, one of the stories was based on a local murder and, though I say in the story “your killer is never found,” about eight months after the story was published, in real life, he was! I am so relieved he won’t be able to hurt anyone else), but I didn’t want that to be the focus of these stories. That would make them plot-driven things, focused on the crime-solving and detecting. For me, I’d prefer to keep my focus on the people: the victims and the survivors.

I think, for our culture, there is something inherently comforting in crime stories: something bad happens, it gets investigated, the bad guy gets caught. The day is saved! That’s not how it really works, and it certainly doesn’t heal anyone’s wounds, but it is comforting to think of a world where bad guys never get away with the things they’ve done.

Dean: I’ll admit that when I first started reading this book, I had nightmares about murdered women. Once I was the murderer myself. I could only read it during the day from that point on. Were you able to separate your own self from these women while you were writing these stories? Did the empathetic act of creating these characters cause any difficulties for you?

Ulrich: Oh, gosh, I’m so sorry you had nightmares! For me, by keeping the focus on what these women were and what they have become rather than writing about what was done to them has definitely kept me from getting too upset by the subject matter.

That said, I think there is a piece of me in all of these women. But there is a piece of me in all the survivors too.

Dean: Do you think you’re done writing about these women? Are there other murdered women whose stories need to be told?

Ulrich: I actually wrote two new Murdered Ladies stories in the last couple of weeks, so I’m definitely not done! There will always be women whose stories need to be told, and I don’t think this series has an ending point.

Dean: This quote comes from the last story in the book. “They will say girls like you. They will say and they will say girls like you.” Why do we blame victims? Why do we create these myths? Do they ever help anyone?

Ulrich: I kind of touched on this when I talked about my experience in the newsroom — people need for victims to be somehow guilty so that they can feel safer. If a victim is somehow to blame for their own death, that means that, yes, the rest of us will be safe. And I think, logically, most people know that it isn’t true, that it isn’t right, but there are some people who are so eager for the world to make sense in the most narrow, limited way, that they hope and want it to be.

And, no, I don’t think it helps anyone, least of all the people who are trying to protect themselves by thinking like this.

Dean: When the readers turn the last page, what do you hope they will feel?

Ulrich: Like reading it again? Ha, ha.

But seriously, I just hope they will feel something. Good books always make you feel something, even if it’s maybe not what the writer intended.

Dean: You have a large presence on Twitter, especially with reading, sharing, and supporting hundreds of writers. How do you balance your non-writing life with your writing and your generous support of the writing community? Thank you, by the way!

Ulrich: I’m very lucky that I have a lot of down time for reading and sharing writing. I love to read and I’m grateful for all the opportunities I have to read and share the amazing work that is being published! I think it’s a really important and great thing if someone’s work means something to you: TELL THEM. A lot of people, and writers especially, can feel really worthless and hurt inside, and if they think no one cares about something they’ve worked so hard on, that can be really terrible. So I want people to know that their work has meant something to me, that they have meant something to me. And I hope by sharing that work, it will mean something to someone else too.

Dean: What are you working on now?

Ulrich: I have a lot of different series going, the “Japan” series, the “Astronaut Love Stories” series, and my newest “Girl Detective in the multiverse” series, which needs a much shorter name. So I’ve always got some project or another going for writing.

Plus, I’m busy with my journal, Milk Candy Review, and with Atlas and Alice and Parentheses, seeking out more amazing writing to share with the world!

Cathy Ulrich had a science kit when she was young, but she mostly made messes. Her work has been published in various journals, including CutBank, Adroit, and Wigleaf.

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