Ursula Pflug on Motion Sickness

Motion Sickness Cover

We're taking a look at Art Books throughout November, and so our interview with Ursula Pflug on her new book, Motion Sickness, is timely, considering its remarkable scratchboard illustrations by SK Dyment.

Ursula Pflug is author of the critically acclaimed slipstream novel, Green Music. She has published over 70 short stories in professional publications in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and has also been shortlisted for the Aurora, the Sunburst, Pulp Press's 3-Day Novel, Descant's Novella Contest, and many more. Currently, she edits short fiction for The Link and teaches creative writing with a focus on the short story at Loyalist College. Her long awaited and highly praised story collection After the Fires appeared in 2008. Harvesting The Moon, a new collection, was published in 2013 from PS Publishing, a UK boutique press specializing in literary speculative fiction including the Bradbury estate. The Alphabet Stones, was also published by in 2013.

She talks to us about flash fiction, her novel's exoskeleton, how she sees with her extra eyes, and stories "on the verge of now." 


49th Shelf: Motion Sickness is a flash novel, which sounds kind of like an oxymoron. You’re really deliberate in your structure—55 chapters of exactly 500 words. But where did the project start? Were the chapters written in sequence? Did you have the narrative arc already in mind?

Ursula Pflug: Oxymoronic, maybe, but that was part of the fun. I began work on the project after I won a prize for a flash story, “A Shower Of Fireflies,” at a British genre magazine. This was a few years ago. “Fireflies” has since been reprinted twice in US compilations, and its success compelled me to try my hand at more flash. Many anthologies showcasing flash have been published in recent years, yet as far as I know, no one has yet published a novel length flash work. I applied to the Canada Council with this idea in mind and received funding to complete the project, which was very exciting.

The chapters were written in sequence. Some of them are revised outtakes from unpublished stories. It's a wonderful way to work, something another gritty realist, Raymond Chandler, called cannibalizing. I never throw anything away including execrable high school journals because even those may turn out to be useful.

I definitely knew the story beforehand, but not all the details and plot twists. I like my characters to surprise me and do things I hadn't planned for them; they're kind of like real people that way, a little unpredictable and uncontrollable. And there were many moments when Penelope surprised me, such as the scene in the bathroom at Al's. I had no idea that was going to happen!

The rigid structure made this book an easier go than some. It was like writing book reviews—500 and that's all you've got. A word count provides an exoskeleton for the writing that can take some of the pressure off.

Motion Sickness Image 2

49th Shelf: How did the scratchboard illustrations by SK Dyment fit into the process?

UP: Right from the start I knew I wanted drawings. I worked in graphics and illustration for years before we left Toronto, so thinking about design is a big part of who I am. Motion Sickness is a hybrid in many ways. As you pointed out, a flash novel is a contradiction in terms,  and while the book is similar to a graphic novel in that the texts are short and the illustrations paramount,  it's a species all its own. 

I'd been looking for an illustrator, but no one had seemed right when SK left a comment under a short story of mine up at Strange Horizons, a US publication of the fantastic.  I wrote immediately asking if he was interested in the project and found out he lived just down the highway from me, in Peterborough. 

The drawings also had an element of surprise. There were so many times he would send me a new one and I'd just be delighted—the humour and cleverness taking off in new directions but still implicity and explicitly complementing the text.

49th Shelf: The novel is heavy in gritty realism, and yet there is an otherworldly element to the whole atmosphere. Can you tell us about this? Are there connections between this work and your other books, with their elements of the fantastic and supernatural?

UP: My work is literary fiction with elements of the fantastic woven throughout, whether fantasy, science fiction, magic realism or slipstream. Motion Sickness is the least fantastic of my books. Gritty realism and literature of the fantastic aren't at cross purposes—to cite only one famous example, millions of readers fell in love with William Gibson's dirty, futuristic Tokyo street scenes.

I have written short stories that have nothing fantastic about them at all, but they are a very few. The fantastic filter is a big part of how I experience the world, so it can't not infect my fiction. To write purely naturalistic fiction would be to remove several of my extra eyes.

Motion Sickness Image 2

49th Shelf: The otherworldly feel of the story comes from the fact that it seems very much out of time—both with Penelope’s own chronology disrupted and because it’s hard to tell when the story takes place (i.e. Penelope has her abortion at a hospital instead of a clinic, which would be very uncommon in big cities today). When do you envision the story taking place?

UP: Motion Sickness isn't non-fiction. Penelope went to a hospital for her abortion, not to a clinic; I don't know what "real people" do or did, percentage wise. The fiction writer writes fiction and doesn't have an obligation to share facts with readers—that's optional. I'm struck by how nowadays fewer and fewer people seem to understand the formal distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. Maybe the proliferation of blogs and creative nonfiction works has blurred the lines significantly.

I think you answered your own question when you said it takes place “out of time.” Heather Spears said Motion Sickness takes place "on the verge of the real," which I absolutely love. We might also say it takes place “on the verge of now.”

In any case, isn't linear time an illusion? Novelists, who as you noticed are time weavers as well as word weavers, understand this implicitly. What is a flashback but a form of time travel? My previous novel, The Alphabet Stones, was initially set in a post technological, post apocalyptic landscape, but an early reader pointed out that it felt much more like a '70s commune milieu—the characters seemed like off-grid back-to-the-landers rather than folks who weren't online because the internet no longer existed.

49th Shelf: Penelope seems like a counterpoint to the mythical Penelope—taking action instead of waiting, silk-screening instead of weaving. Motion Sickness is the story of her own odyssey. How would you describe her journey? 

UP: Penelope doesn't have any relation to Homer's Penelope, at least not one I consciously intended. I've been fond of the name forever, including the short form Penny, or the one I use, Pen, which, of course, is a writerly nickname. Penelope isn't a writer but she might become one; among other things the story is about her growing connection to Theo, "who shares a similarly poetic take on the world."

Pen's journey is from risk to safety or the possibility of safety.  Her dangerous experiences cause her to feel unmoored, hence the motion sickness. Theo isn't manipulative; he's a straight shooter and he doesn't need her to be someone she's not. He accepts her and is grateful he's found a kindred spirit. 

49th Shelf: What other Canadian books would you recommend as a complement to Motion Sickness?

UP: I did an event at Librairie Drawn and Quarterly in Montreal for Motion Sickness with fellow Inanna author Phyllis Rudin. Inanna approached them because they are a publisher of graphic novels who also own a bookstore focusing on the genre. The store is heaven for the graphic novel fan "who shares a similarly poetic take on the world". It was a good thing they closed the doors right after the event or I could have spent a fortune. So—I'm not exactly up to date on Canadian graphic fiction but would suggest D and Q as a great start for exploration. 

One book that does come to mind is Hiromi Goto's Half World.There are differences as well as similarities: Goto's heroine is much younger than Penelope; the novel is YA/Adult crossover, and half of the story takes place in a completely fantastic world—but it's anguished female protagonist, formal hybridity and fantastical elements are commonalities. Most importantly it has incredible drawings by Jillian Tamaki. I looked at them more than once while imagining the perfect illustrator for Motion Sickness, a trick that seems to have worked.

November 20, 2014
Books mentioned in this post
Motion Sickness

Motion Sickness

by Ursula Pflug
illustrated by SK Dyment
also available: eBook
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