A Conversation with Cathy Ulrich and Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Eight Longleaf Review contributors are included in the 2019 edition of the Best Small Fictions. This winter, editor-in-chief Kate Finegan conducted a series of four digital roundtables with them via email. In this third installment, Cathy Ulrich and Chaya Bhuvaneswar discuss finding a story’s pulse, finding time to write, and engaging in community.
Longleaf Review: I see all of these stories as dealing with different types of hauntings—the specter of racism in a relationship, the memory of a murdered babysitter, a marriage to a dead girl. I’ve heard that writers should explore what they’re afraid of. Do you find that you’re exploring your fears in your writing? If not, what questions or concerns are you exploring on the page?
Cathy Ulrich: I’ve heard that, too: “write what scares you.” As someone with a few severe phobias, a lot of my work explores things that scare me. The irony is—neither of these two stories touch on any of those topics. (Although it does terrify me how casually murder, especially women’s murders, are treated in America.) As to the haunting aspect, in “Babysitter,” Mrs. Harrison is being haunted not by any real specter, but by the sound of her own heartbeat. The ghost bride appears to her family in dreams, but never to her lover, so I suspect they are being haunted, too, not by any real ghost, but by their own guilt.
I recently got my contributor’s copy of Best Small Fictions 2019, and Chaya’s story is one of my favorites in the collection. What I love about this story (other than the power in the writing) is that the character is dealing not only with racism, but with sexism as well. Chaya, my question for you is: Do you think this is a story that could be written from a man’s perspective?
Chaya Bhuvaneswar: I’ll answer Cathy’s question first. I am waiting for, but haven’t yet read, books by white male cis het authors about women of color they’re involved with. I did read a beautiful short story in The Paris Review a few years ago, though, which glanced at the intersection of race and gender in a marriage as it affected how the couple survived being long distance, framed around the (white cis het male’s) “sighting” of the writer Zadie Smith. But all that said, I DO think my piece could have been written by a male author. Any piece of writing could be written by anyone, it just involves different challenges for the writer. I actually really liked the character of Patty in Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, for example. She was alive and compelling and really a kind of heart of that book that made it worth reading.
In terms of writing to explore fears: I would say I don’t do that explicitly. It is true that if you feel more nervous as you write something or think of a plot twist, that’s probably good because it’s a sign the work has a pulse. But I don’t set out that way at all. I have to write what’s interesting to me and makes me as the writer want to keep reading. It’s essential, that “readability,” and I cherish the fact that Sam Sacks of the Wall Street Journal called my story collection, White Dancing Elephants, “compulsively readable.” I would say—THAT’s what I’m after. The level of craft that pulls the reader in completely. It’s what I look for when I read—I want to be immersed, so I don’t “question” or hold back when things happen that are very far outside my personal experience. Like: I don’t know what happens on a cruise to Antarctica, or on a scientific mission there. I have no idea. But Laura Van Den Berg’s short story on this in Glimmer Train a few years ago made me actually care, and feel like I was experiencing some features of it. Same with the beautiful novel Smilla’s Sense of Snow. In some visceral sense I know what it’s like to come from a people who feel dispossessed. But till i read that book I’d never thought about “Greenlander” as an identity in opposition to “Dane,” per se.
If you feel more nervous as you write something or think of a plot twist, that’s probably good because it’s a sign the work has a pulse.
LR: I want to explore this idea that feeling nervous is “a sign the work has a pulse.” One thing I noticed about your stories was how quickly they move and how much they draw the reader in. They are not languid, dip-your-toe-in stories. How does form help to determine a story’s pulse?
Another question—how do you find the pulse in a story that is meant to move more slowly? For me personally, I find that especially in slower-moving stories, surprises at the level of word and image propel me forward, both as a reader and a writer.
CU: I love this idea of the “pulse” of a story. I think of language in terms of rhythm, almost like a song. Right now, I write almost exclusively in the flash form. I like how it combines the beauty and musicality of poetry with the storytelling of longer works.
As far as finding the pulse in a story, I usually let the story take me where it wants. So rather than me finding anything, I let the writing find me. In reading, I’m much the same—I like to sit back and let the words flow over me. As a reader (and an editor), I am always excited by surprises in word and imagery, though. That brings such a unique power to a writer’s piece; it’s one of my favorite things.
LR: There are a lot of interesting ideas coming up here about what we’re writing (and reading) towards—a sense of flow, musicality, to step outside one’s personal experience, to be surprised. Both of you have mentioned the importance of reading in your writing practice. I want to turn toward the writing life, which includes submitting and publishing. What is the normal “flow” in your writing life—in terms of your habits? And what have been your favorite surprises in your writing life?
CU: I think most people have probably noticed I’m very prolific! I write, on average, two to three pieces a week. That’s not to say they’re all publishable—some just go right in the shredder, some get stowed away as fodder for better stories—but on average, that’s my production amount. From the first scribble on my notepad to the final version depends on the story and how long of a lunch break I get. I like to write by hand and then edit a typed copy. Sometimes a story needs a couple of rounds of edits, sometimes it’s basically done from the first draft. From there, depending on how much time is available to me, I start the submissions process. I’ve been lucky enough to get stories into some dream publications over the last few years—it takes a lot of reading to find what journals look for, and hopefully match up something in my style to what they like.
From the first scribble on my notepad to the final version depends on the story and how long of a lunch break I get.
As far as habits, I’m not a “write every day” sort of person. Or even “edit every day.” If I try to force a story, it just doesn’t work. But if I hear the story’s voice, then I’m ready to go.
I’ve had many lovely surprises in my writing life—I’m grateful for everyone who has supported me and my work, from editors to readers to other writers. Every day when I find that people have read something I’ve written and enjoyed it—that’s one of the best surprises of all.
CB: Love this question, since I am such a fan of writer interviews and craft talks, where writers discuss their different processes and ways of generating and finishing a given piece of writing. I strongly recommend The Paris Review Writers at Work series especially. I remember one of my favorite interviews, either there or elsewhere, was with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, about how he included time spent waiting for his wife in beauty salons and reading fashion magazines “because I learn there what I cannot learn anywhere else,” as part of his writing process—along with boxing and waking up at 5 am.
I would say there are two aspects of my process I’m really, really proud of, fiercely so. The first is the commitment, that is to say, perseverance. I write. Period. Just find a way somehow. This has meant everything. It’s pretty much that I am always writing unless I’m specifically doing something else. And the “something else” is very, very clearly defined: 1) medicine (takes about 50 hours a week); 2) kids (take a lot of other time interstitially but in terms of activities and such, probably about 45 hours a week including weekends); 3) writing—pretty much everything left that doesn’t minimally have to go to personal upkeep, within which I include being with my partner. It is a pared down life. I am really happy about it.
I write. Period. Just find a way somehow. This has meant everything.
The second aspect I’m really proud of is neutrality about where I submit and what happens. I’m pretty good on this. I submit widely. If I’m working on finishing something long, I wait to submit all the shorter stuff that has piled up. But I keep submitting something. During a revision I’m doing I just got two shorter pieces accepted and I have one essay with suggested revisions. And I would say this is my most dormant time re: submissions, since usually I really try to submit at least 2-3 pieces every few days. Flash is great that way, but there are things I wrote in high school (literally) that, in Emily Dickinson style, I never submitted. Later, I pulled them out, realized how much I loved them, submitted, got them published. Seriously. So don’t let your parents throw away all your stuff before you’ve had a good look at it. This play I wrote about a John Lennon impersonator in an interracial relationship who takes on racism in his high school, for instance, and in the process learns his best male friend is in love with him. I can’t believe I wrote that at fifteen. It’s a play I’d go to see, you know?
The third aspect of writing though, where I struggle, is the public persona of writer. I was really good on this in the year or so leading up to my book launch and until about November 2019, and then after that, I got deep into a long manuscript and just wanted to burrow…but we can’t. No one can. Writing is fundamentally something that radiates out. So I’m really looking forward to doing more events. Somehow. None of it would be possible without a very loving and hard-working partner.
LR: You noted that “Writing is fundamentally something that radiates out.” I’d love to talk about the different ways in which writing radiates—into the world, into other parts of your life, into your relationships with other writers. I honestly feel like when I’m in a fertile writing time, the world glows a bit more brightly, and so much of that comes from absorbing the words of others. How does steeping yourselves in writing affect how you move in the world and on the page?
CB: I’d love to hear more from the lovely and brilliant Cathy Ulrich on this because on Twitter, you are engaged in so many kinds of community. It really impresses me. From my standpoint, I would emphasize the equal value of “all kinds” of immersion. If that’s 15 minutes a day that are yours, where you literally sit in a tub and write in a notebook trying not to get it wet—great. If that’s you in an elevator coming home from work, reading a wonderful personal essay by Melissa Febos or Samantha Irby or Jaquira Diaz, to name some of my favorites, that’s great. That counts as culture. That counts as writing immersion just as much as having the time off from work to go to a writer’s residency (which many parents can’t even do for extended periods, nor can people who have caregiver responsibilities, etc). For me, immersion manifests as choice. It means you don’t watch mindless TV or “veg out,” exactly. When you have leisure time, feed it into the writing. When you are “waiting” for a child to finish some activity (i.e. a class where you’re waiting downstairs, outside or in your car)—that can be a time to read and reflect about a beautiful novel, like I did yesterday with Raven Leilani’s magnificent debut, Luster.
For me, immersion manifests as choice.
“Immersion” is great as a growth tonic for your writing but as a model of “what I could do if I only had more time” it can also be destructive and a trigger for procrastination, thinking “there’s no point if I can’t have five hours a day to write,” which most successful writers actually never have, or if they have it, only have it in short spurts, like weekend or vacation.
CU: This is a great question! I do like to engage with writers and writing on Twitter. I do a lot of reading during my down time at work (don’t tell my boss, ha ha). I read at night before bed. I read during meals. I’ve loved to read since I was a child and I love the freedom I have in my reading now—I can read whatever I want to, and, if I don’t like it, I can stop reading it. It’s such a nice change from all those years of school where you had to read for assignments, even if you didn’t enjoy the work or the writer.
As far as immersion in writing, sometimes, when I’m caught up in the world of a story I’m creating, I forget the outside world—like when you were a kid and you’re reading a book and they’re trapped in a snowstorm and you look up and there’s no snow on the ground and, for a moment, you’re lost? Sometimes I get so deeply entrenched in the world of writing that I will look up and see where I am and think, “Was I here a moment ago? Is this where I was?”
Sometimes, when I’m caught up in the world of a story I’m creating, I forget the outside world.
LR: I love both of your answers so much! And yes, this idea of “immersion” can be demotivating if it’s taken too literally. And it also puts a lot of pressure on those rare times when you might actually be lucky enough to get away from it all to write; there’s the sense of, “I’ve been waiting for this, and now I’m not being as productive as I should be.” Those shifts in consciousness that occur on the bus or on a lunch break can change my outlook for the whole day; I see other possible worlds lurking behind every small interaction I see, every innocuous detail. It’s the writerly way of looking at the world, of taking in everything with a keen, questioning eye.
What are some of the stories in Best Small Fictions that have captured your attention?
CU: In this year’s anthology, some of my favorites were pieces I was already familiar with, like the amazing work from Lori Sambol Brody, Leonora Desar, Tara Isabel Zambrano, Kim Magowan and, of course, Chaya Bhuvaneswar, whose story I had loved when I saw it in Longleaf and was so excited to see it included here. There were a couple of pieces I hadn’t read before that really stood out for me: Natalie Hernandez’s “Whatever They Told You Not to Be” and Matt Bell’s “The Goat-Headed Girl.” I thought those were really powerful and interesting. I loved that there was such a variety of writers from all over the world—the representation was really impressive.
CB: I really enjoyed all of them, but some favorites were by Kristen Arnett, Ann Beattie, Demisty D. Bellinger, Carmen Maria Machado, and of course Cathy Ulrich—that piece is so witty, nerve-wracking, deft.
Cathy Ulrich is the founding editor of Milk Candy Review, a journal of flash fiction. Her work has been published in various journals, including Black Warrior Review, Passages North, and Wigleaf and can be found in Best Microfiction 2019 and 2020, Best Small Fictions 2019, and Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2017 and 2019. She is the author of the flash fiction collection Ghosts of You (Okay Donkey Press), and lives in Montana with her daughter and various small animals.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician, writer and PEN American award finalist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Electric Literature, The Millions, Joyland, Large Hearted Boy, Chattahoochee Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, and elsewhere, with poetry in The Florida Review, sidereal, Natural Bridge, Apt Magazine, Hobart, Ithaca Lit, Quiddity and elsewhere. White Dancing Elephants (Dzanc), her debut story collection, was a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2018. Her poetry and prose juxtapose Hindu epics, other myths and histories, and the survival of sexual harassment and racialized sexual violence by diverse women of color.