Songs Without Music: A Conversation with Cathy Ulrich

Cathy Ulrich

“The thing about being the murdered girl is you set the plot in motion.” All 31 pieces of flash fiction in Cathy Ulrich’s debut collection Ghosts of You (Okay Donkey Press) begin with a variation of this sentence. Ulrich is a writer from Montana, whose work has appeared in Fiction Southeast, Cleaver Magazine, and The Atticus Review, among other venues. In Ghosts of You, she gives the murdered girls and women so frequently used as plot devices back their stories. In this conversation, Ulrich explains her deft use of repetition, the anger that fueled the collection, and the influence Law and Order reruns had on the collection.

I want to call this a feminist story collection. Can I do that? Do you see it that way? 

Absolutely you can call it that! I consider myself a feminist writer and I think most readers would agree. I rarely write about men as the main character, and I certainly prefer to tell “women’s stories.” We’ve had plenty of stories about men that have been told over and over again, and we’ve got plenty of modern writers who can tell their tales and do them justice.

I want to write about women. I want to tell their stories. I think their stories deserve to be told.

Some of the murdered women and girls featured in the collection are expected—the girlfriend, the wife, the mother. Others like the mermaid, the moll, the chanteuse, the taxidermist are much more surprising. How did you decide on the characters to include? 

As I wrote more and more of these stories, the “obvious” characters got used up quickly (though I haven’t done things yet like “nurse” or “secretary” or “nun,” things people traditionally think of as women’s roles). I wouldn’t say I’ve decided on particular characters to include, just told the stories of the ones who have spoken to me so far.

Were there characters who didn’t make it into the final collection? 

There is one story that was complete in time for this collection that won’t be appearing in it: “Being the Murdered Stripper.” The stripper character is a pretty common one in detective shows (I’m trying to think of a detective show where they don’t visit a strip club at some point). In this story, I played with form and format a lot more than I usually do, and it just doesn’t work with the formatting of the book.

That said, there are a lot of characters that haven’t made it in because I haven’t written their stories yet. I think, as long as I am writing flash, I will have more of these characters’ stories to tell. I’ve made a list of characters (like “nurse” and “secretary,” as I mentioned before), but I find myself writing things like “doll collector” and “ukulele girl.” When the story speaks to me, then I’ll tell it.

The repeated first line of every sentence ties the collection together, but beyond that, you use the repetition of individual words and phrases in many of the stories in a way that read to me more like poetry than prose. What’s the function of repetition as a device in the collection? 

Repetition is something I use a lot in my work. It’s less a poetic device than a musical one. There’s a song in a suite by Gustav Holst that I adore called “Song Without Words.” My stories are more like “songs without music.”

In this collection, “gone, gone, gone” is a triplet phrase I often end with — whether it be a story or a sentence. It’s kind of an ending chord, if you will. I definitely consider rhythm more than imagery when it comes to writing. I’m not a particularly visual person, but I can hear every word before I write it down.

These stories have a cumulative effect on the reader. At the start of the book, they seem to be critiquing the crime fiction trope that hangs a plot on the death of a woman. By the end, though, the book becomes, in addition to a critique, an exploration of grief and loss and relationships, and of memory and the ownership of stories. Can you talk about your process for arranging the stories to create that arc? 

I think it must be a side effect of how I’ve changed and grown as a person and a writer — the stories are basically in order chronologically (with the exception of the last story “Being the Murdered Indian”, which is one that is very special to me and I wanted it to be the final moment in the collection). In the earlier stories, I think my anger comes through more. I’m angry at how these women are treated (in fiction and in life) as objects, as nothing more than plot points. But I think my focus went from anger to grief as I continued writing them. Then again, anger is a part of grief, too, so perhaps I will go back to being angry as these stories continue to progress.

Photographs come up a lot in the stories. What do they symbolize for you? Or do they play a role beyond symbol? 

Photographs are really interesting things, I think. Sometimes you can look at a photo of yourself or a place, and you can remember exactly what you were thinking, exactly what kind of person you were in that moment. Sometimes you can’t. Or sometimes you think you do, but you are remembering the moment the way you thought it was, not the way it actually was. Photographs are fact (I mean, mostly! With all the graphic manipulation out there nowadays, that’s not always true), but how we interpret them isn’t.

And when you look at a photograph of someone else, you are creating a story for them in that photograph, taking your perspective and placing it on their fact.

Don’t you think that’s interesting? I think that’s so interesting!

I love that idea that photographs are both facts and artifacts that are open to interpretation. And I think that idea ties into a larger theme of the collection, that challenges our typical approach to stories about murder as a process of uncovering facts. Very few of these stories are concerned with the who, how, or why of any of the murders. Instead they seem interested in a different kind of interpretation — the performance of grief and loss. Why does that perspective on murdered women interest you? 

Lately, I’ve been watching Law & Order (original flavor) reruns. I do like how each episode finds a crime, solves the crime, tries the criminal, it’s been an hour, we all go to bed. But what I really like about the series is the tiny hints about the characters’ inner lives we get from time to time. Those moments are the really human moments for me, when we see Lieutenant Van Buren eating noodles out of a takeout box in her office, when we see Lenny Briscoe consider having a drink, when we see the district attorneys’ gazes linger too long. 

For me, that’s the real story, not the whodunit, or how, or why. Those little human moments. Those make the world.


Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.