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Author Spotlight: Ursula Pflug

How did “Python” come about?

When I wrote “Python” I was living on a farm in eastern Peterborough County in Ontario, looking after small children, a big house, and a large vegetable garden. It was hard to find time to write, partly, I’m sure, because I hung cloth diapers out, more fool me. But I was disciplined and wrote every day — writing was important and I had the role model of my mother, the painter Christiane Pflug, who painted all day, every day, whether she felt like it or not. My partner, the multimedia artist Doug Back, was a devoted dad and played with the kids while I worked if he was home from the city. I had a little room on the second floor overlooking the driveway; across the road lay a swamp where the dogwoods filled with chorus frogs every spring. I had an arts council grant to work on short fiction — never underestimate the importance of funding — especially in Canada where writers and publishers compete for readers with US publishers with far greater resources. Notice I am telling a Woolfian kind of tale here — about a room of one’s own, childcare, and a stipend — it’s still relevant.

“Python” is inspired by a trip I took to New Orleans with a close friend when we were young. New Orleans was a revelation — my one and only trip to the American south. I’m told it’s not representative — that New Orleans isn’t really the south, just as Berlin, where my family is from, isn’t really Germany.

The story isn’t literal truth — it’s a fantastical quest inspired by the feel of New Orleans and my memories of Mardi Gras. When writing semi­autobiographical fiction, I tell students, there’s a point where you change everyone’s names, appearances, and styles of dress, and they start to behave in ways that are divergent from the people who inspired them, and have undreamed of adventures. And at that point the work is no longer kind-­of-memoir but true fiction, although Faith definitely shares some of my thoughts and perspectives.

But there are moments in this story, such as Faith’s trans acquaintance asking her to throw the moon out the window that to this day I wonder where it came from — it delights me and I feel oddly honoured to have written it, as if, in a way, that image was a gift. And many of the images are gifts; that’s what it felt like to write: I’d close my eyes and see the urban fairy tale images, and record them if you will.

Python is one of those stories that “wrote itself,” as they say. I polished it the day after I wrote it and understood that if I kept going, revising or adding beyond that very light edit, I risked destroying it, which is something I’ve done, saving over an original in the mistaken belief I was improving it.

Can you talk a little bit about the long journey to publication and then reprints for this award-winning story?

I sent the story to a few different places including Century, Interzone, and the Canadian Tesseracts anthology in ’96 — so it was probably written in ’95 or so — I could nail down the date if I had a computer that could run the floppy the original is stored on. Eventually I sent it to Jeff Vandermeer. He had published me in Leviathan One, and he suggested I send it to Rose Secrest, a writer who co­edited the second Leviathan. Rose awarded the story a prize in her annual contest, and Jeff sent the story to Keith Brooke for his Infinity Plus website, so that was its first publication, in 2002, the same year my first novel came out, the interdimensional turtle story Green Music. I used to keep really detailed submission files, which I went so far as to copy from one hard drive to the next. Just now looking up “Python” I find a note which says I had offered the story to Jeff for his website in trade for a possible ad for Green Music — so presumably that was the first time he saw it and then suggested I send it to Rose and to Keith. This leads me to believe he was publishing short fiction on whatever website he had at the time, but who knows? It’s a long time ago.

Jeff started putting together Album Zutique during that time as well, and asked if he could have “Python” for it. After that it didn’t appear again till it was reprinted in my 2008 collection After the Fires, published by Toronto’s Tightrope Books, a wonderful small press started by writer Halli Villegas.

It was turned down sixteen times and took seven years to see print. It’s an arty story, not the kind of thing you can send to Asimov’s or the Magazine of F and SF. I might have done better sending it to a Canadian literary magazine, but it may also have been too “genre” for them. I’ve always been an arty writer and it’s partly because of the way I grew up, with parents who talked about Kafka and Burroughs — who are both speculative fiction writers, of course, but were published as “mainstream,” as it’s called only in the genre community.

Does Faith’s story continue?

I definitely wanted to make it into a longer work, but the voice is very particular and wasn’t reproducible. Sometimes that happens. There are a handful of drafts towards others, a series of linked short stories, but at a certain point I realized I couldn’t bear them.

What were the challenges of balancing the uncertainties of Faith’s experience with providing a coherent thread for readers to follow?

The story is about the fluidity of identity and finding a part of oneself that, in a way, stands outside of experience, observing, and how that objective or even alienated eye can provide an anchor, can be the narrative thread holding together multiple selves in an uncertain world, an uncertain story. If all is uncertain, then uncertainty becomes certainty. Who said that?

More:

“Python” has appeared in Canada, the US, and the UK; it’s been republished more than any other story I’ve written except for “The Water Man” — all this in spite of being turned down sixteen times and taking half a dozen years to find a home. What do we learn from this? Perseverance.

I was recently on the short fiction panel at Ottawa’s inaugural Prose In the Park festival — it threw genre and literary writers, Giller winners, and emerging authors all together in a smallish park where audience and writerly interaction were supported — we partook in a brilliant day long community where I had some of the better literary conversations I’ve had in years! The conversations at SF and fantasy cons tend to repeat themselves after a while in a kind of never-ending circle. It was great to be able to talk about short stories, not genre short stories.

I read from “Python,” partly in celebration of its appearance on Lightspeed. I wondered aloud whether it’s really superior to other stories I’ve written or whether we just become associated with certain stories — editors ask for them because of their familiarity. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is a famous example of this.

Anyway, I think it is better. It was a gift. Tonya Liburd, a Toronto writer and editor, wrote me that when she grew up she wanted to be able to write a story like “Python,” and the truth is, I wrote back, so do I. Magic flits into your life and then flits out again.

Any new projects you want to tell us about?

I’m currently in the final stages of editing an anthology for the Callaghan press Exile, together with Vancouver editor and author Colleen Anderson. It’s called The Playground of Lost Toys and is slated for a November release. It’s a speculative anthology, but we have amazing stories by both genre and mainstream authors, Canadian because of funding stipulations.

I’ve been teaching a Trent University Con Ed course with critic Derek Newman­Stille and that has been a lot of fun — we hope to do more in the fall.

I began a short story in late winter when I returned home from teaching workshops in Mexico and I haven’t actually found time to finish it, but that may be a necessary thing. I had several books go to press in the last few years, including the story collection Harvesting the Moon (PS); the rural fantasy novel The Alphabet Stones, which was shortlisted for the ReLit, (Blue Denim); and the illustrated flash novel Motion Sickness (Inanna), which is a mainstream book, with incredible illustrations by SK Dyment. I also edited another anthology, They Have To Take You In, on the theme of family. It’s a mainstream/speculative fundraiser anthology benefiting mental health.

Given all that, I wound up exhausted — maybe it’s a good time to cut back and regroup.

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Jude Griffin

Jude Griffin

Jude Griffin is an envirogeek, writer, and photographer. She trained llamas at the Bronx Zoo; was a volunteer EMT, firefighter, and HAZMAT responder; worked as a guide and translator for journalists covering combat in Central America; lived in a haunted village in Thailand; ran an international frog monitoring network; and loves happy endings. Bonus points for frolicking dogs and kisses backlit by a shimmering full moon.