Something new today, dear reader (and perhaps a bit longer than usual) — an interview with author Ursula Pflug about her brand-new flash-fiction novel, Motion Sickness, published by Inanna. Neither a graphic novel nor a conventional one, her book deals with the simplest of things — a young woman’s meanderings through friendship, work and love — in whimsical, complex and poetic ways. I can’t imagine a conventional “review” for this unique and original work, so instead we’re speaking with Ursula, a critically acclaimed author in many forms, including two novels and a short story collection.
For your novel Motion Sickness, you’ve used the flash-fiction format; each chapter is exactly 500 words long. Why did you decide to do this?
I’m an overwriter, so I have plenty of experience creating everything-but-the kitchen-sink narratives that then require massive scaling back. The ceilings were a nice way to prevent that before the horses even got out of the stable. The precise word counts were just for fun; they gave the writing a puzzle-like quality.
Along with shaping the story, this format builds dramatic tension. Your off-the-wall characters have to work against a very tight structure. For the reader, that contrast between form and content is an engine that drives the story forward. Could you comment on this?
Along with being an overwriter I’m also the kind of person who believes an internal shift in your protagonist counts as a plot point. The rigid structure was a reminder that something had to happen in every chapter; I needed to counterpoint Penelope’s poetic perceptions about life with external hurdles, and I think this made for more of an event-filled book.
Could you talk more about your writing process? What planted the germ of this story in your mind?
I won an award in the UK for a flash piece some years ago and thought I’d do more but I wasn’t happy with the results. I have collections of old hard drives and even filing cabinets spilling over with works-in-progress that I hold on to — we’ve all got them — stories that never quite held together but had enough spark that we couldn’t abandon them…
So there I was, wanting to do more flash, but not finding inspiration for the content. I poked around in my archives and came across a short story called “Lunch with Nathan.” It appealed to me because it was already written in the short sentences and punchy style that suited the form. As I began work and a longer story started to emerge I realized I could try a flash novel.
The illustrations are very effective. Did you conceive of Motion Sickness as an illustrated, large-format work?
I did! Illustrations yes, large format, no. That was Val Fullard, the Inanna designer’s particular genius. Once I began the writing I became more and more sure I wanted to have drawings. I envisioned it just as it is, a chapter with a facing illustration. Motion Sickness is a hybrid, not techincally a graphic novel, but it’s closely related — the prose sections are short and the drawings are paramount.
There are so many difficult real-life elements in the story — a creepy stalker, unhappy sex, drugs, abortion — that in other hands, might have made for a grim read. Yet with your central character Penelope, you’ve managed to avoid clichés and tell her story with a light touch. Was this your intention?
Well, humour is what gets us through, often as not, isn’t it? Thanks for saying I avoided clichés; it’s important to me that’s noticed and appeciated, not least because of some of the books that have done really well the last few years. I’m hoping there’s a bit of a pendulum swing back towards quality; the recent success of writers like Ruth Ozeki and Jeff VanderMeer are inspiring.
I believe every story is worth telling, and every story is brilliant if told in a way that does it justice…While it’s true that events or accomplishments make some lives stand out more than others, our perception of life is unique to each of us…It’s Penelope’s idiosynchratic take on things that helps her to survive, providing distance when necessary.
In the end, did the book surprise you? I’m speaking here of the poetic sense that rises out of the story. It feels in some ways surreal and even whimsical at times.
I’m basically a literary writer whose work is infused with elements of the fantasic, whether fantasy, science fiction or magic realism. Motion Sickness is actually the least fantastic of all my books. Heather Spears said it takes place ‘on the verge of the real,’ which I adore. She also said the titles read like poems. After she pointed it out I thought about why I’d done that — and this is a process note, again. The style for the texts was necessarily one of short sentences, but the titles weren’t subject to restrictions, so I had room to create wandering poetic phrases. I enjoyed the counterpoint.
The poetic sense you noticed comes from style but also from character. Right at the beginning we learn that Penelope’s a scribbler, kicking her way through fallen leaves to get to park benches where she can chew on pencil ends…Maybe she would have changed her life sooner if she hadn’t been a scribbler, but it’s also what made her notice Theo, a fellow writer and eventual soul mate. “Hearts on ropes and flowers on telephone poles,” as he likes to remind us.
As to the surpises — I was contantly surprised! Half the time when I sat down to write I had no idea what was about to emerge. Penelope had all kinds of crazy things happen to her that were unforseen to me, and she also had original ways of processing experience that delighted me. I ended up wishing she was someone I knew in real life. I wanted to sit in a leaf-strewn November park with her, drinking takeout coffee and talking about life, or maybe share a beer at Al’s Fish n’ Chips in the wee hours past closing time. Maybe that’s why I finally managed to finish writing her story: it was the only way I could spend more time with Penelope.
Thank you, Ursula…Ursula Pflug launches Motion Sickness at Inanna Publications’ Fall Launch #3: Monday evening, November 17th from 6 to 8:30pm at the Supermarket, 268 Augusta Ave. (Kensington Market), Toronto.