Breaking In: Interview with Ursula Pflug

Welcome to the latest installment of Breaking In, where I interview authors about their experiences breaking in as writers — how they did it, what it felt like to get there, and how it differed from what they were expecting.

Today I’m delighted to have the chance to interview an award-winning writer of speculative fiction, as well as an acclaimed playwright, editor, teacher, and journalist – author Ursula Pflug.

As she notes on her website, born in Tunis to German parents in 1958, Ursula Pflug grew up in Toronto. She attended the University of Toronto and The Ontario College of Art and Design. In workshop settings she studied playwriting with Judith Thompson and speculative fiction with Judith Merril. She has travelled in Canada, the US, North Africa, Europe, Jamaica, Japan, and Mexico. She has lived in New York City and in Hawai’i. Formerly a graphic designer, she focused on her writing after relocating to rural Peterborough County with her family in 1987 and currently lives in the village of Norwood with her partner, the multi-media artist Doug Back.

She’s had over ninety pieces of short fiction, three novels, two novellas and two collections of her short stories published, is the co-editor of two anthologies, and I’m pretty sure I’m missing at least a few credits there, too.

Her story ‘A Room of His Own’ will appear in Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-One).

So, yes, my now-standard disclaimer applies: This is one of my Breaking In posts focusing on a fellow contributor to Nevertheless.

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[SGM] Welcome to the blog, Ursula! To begin, when did you feel like you’d broken in as a writer?

[UP] I had a regular column about art in Toronto’s NOW Magazine  in 1981-2.  People I ran into on the street suddenly treated me like a professional—I’d been working as a graphic artist. I was still in my early twenties so it was a huge deal.

What was your path to breaking in? Did you have a strategy? Did it work, or did you end up getting there another way?

Persistence is the best strategy. People quit because they’re discouraged. My short story Python took seven years and sixteen submissions before it was published. It went on to win Rose Secrest’s annual award and was reprinted in prestigious US and UK venues including Jeff VanderMeer’s Album Zutique anthology and Lightspeed magazine. You also have to have a disciplined work schedule; that’s crucial. My artist mother had very good work habits. Working long hours every day seemed like the thing to do because I’d grown up with it.

And following up on that, knowing what you do now, what would you do differently?

I worked on my own a lot. Most of my peers when I was young were visual and new media artists and musicians. I only knew one other hard working short fiction writer when I began to publish in anthologies and magazines. I also didn’t go to workshops at the start—that came a bit later—there weren’t really any, or if there were, I didn’t learn of them. This was pre-internet. Now I see emerging writers of any age receiving huge amounts of support in their critique groups and their short story workshops—some of which I teach. On the other hand, authors have told me of really bad advice they’ve received in their writers’ groups. Even pros can give you terrible advice if they don’t ‘get’ you—advice that if followed can cost years. Discernment is really important when it comes to sifting through everything people tell you. How does one acquire it? And the advantage of working alone is that you get to  explore without someone looking over your shoulder—even an insightful, well-meaning person can be a distraction when you’re just learning how to swim—to use an image from my story.

Now that you’ve broken in, is it like or unlike what you expected? How?

When I was young I had the idea I could make a good living, but that was the folly of youth. Jan Thornhill, one of my best friends, supports herself and her husband as  a best-selling children’s science author, but she’s the only person I’m close to who is living the fantasy of success so many aspiring writers subscribe to. Only a handful of Canadian authors pull it off. I try not to be curmudgeonly because to earn even part of one’s living from writing and writing related activities is a blessing, but writing and publishing in Canada are still hierarchical. I read widely including for national juried contests, and I see what’s out there. A major house doesn’t guarantee better books, but it can mean better sales. My books have received great reviews internationally and been endorsed by incredible authors, but they’ve been released by Canadian and British small and medium sized presses. A lot of people only want to read from best seller lists, and they’re selling themselves short. Read small press authors! You’ll be inspired by the diversity. It has been harder to get published if you’re indigenous, a person of colour, LGBTQ. We’re starting to see greater inclusiveness, long overdue. And there’s been an explosion of brilliant indigenous speculative fiction in Canada, much of it published as “mainstream.”

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a portal fantasy that grew out of an unpublished short story titled The Lonely Planet Guide to Other Dimensions. It’s about a hotel on an arid peninsula by the sea. The main characters live in depopulated villages nearby, in  the mysterious city to the north, or on  Earth—in Ontario—and all come to stay at the hotel for different reasons. I’m a pantser so I prefer stories to be emergent—and what I’m noticing  is that Rachel, who visits from Earth via a dimensional portal, has an easier time fitting in than Esme,  who came from the north by bus. I’m not sure why that is but in one way that’s the best place to be—you keep writing to learn about these people’s lives. I’m also working on a memoir about a year I spent as a penniless teen living in backwoods Hawai’i following a shipwreck.

How can people keep up with you online?

My website is Ursulapflug.ca. I’m on twitter, Goodreads and FB under my own name. No tumblr or Instagram. You have to stop somewhere.

Thanks very much to Ursula for the interview! And man, “…a year I spent as a penniless teen living in backwoods Hawai’i following a shipwreck.” How much do I want to read that memoir?!

I also look forward to reading Ursula’s story in Nevertheless”\ (Tesseracts Twenty-One)

Which is no longer merely available for pre-order. It’s available now as an ebook from Amazon.

Coming up next on the blog: Nevertheless contributor James Bambury shares his experiences Breaking In!

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